GEORGIA: Why Does Patriarch Need Immunity?

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 23 October 2002

The spokesman for the Georgian Orthodox Patriarchate has told Keston News Service that a provision of the newly-signed constitutional agreement between his Church and the Georgian state granting immunity from prosecution to the Patriarch-Catholicos was suggested by Archbishop Claudio Gugerotti, the Vatican nuncio in Tbilisi. "He told our Church two months ago that the concordat should include the immunity of the patriarch, just as the Pope has immunity," Georgi Andriadze told Keston from Tbilisi on 22 October. "It was discussed with the state and included in the concordat about a month ago." However, Archbishop Gugerotti has vigorously denied such claims. "This is not true," he insisted to Keston from Tbilisi the same day. "This must have been a misunderstanding on the part of the Patriarchate."

The immunity is granted to the Patriarch in Article 1 part 5 of the new concordat, which was signed on 14 October, approved by the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church on 17 October and ratified by parliament on 22 October (see separate KNS article).

Archbishop Gugerotti explained to Keston that in earlier discussions Patriarchate officials had asked in general about what provisions are normally included in concordats between the Holy See and individual states. He said that in the past the Catholic Church had insisted that, in the case of wrongdoing, clergy should be subject to church tribunals, not state courts. However, he added, "this is no longer possible". "We now advise that any state should now inform the Church and the bishop if any member of the clergy is to go to trial - as a gesture of kindness. That is all. We did not discuss immunity for any clergy."

Andriadze denied suggestions that such immunity put the patriarch "above the law". "There are procedures, such as for parliamentary deputies or the president who have the same immunity." He said laws which will have to be adopted to implement the concordat will deal with this. "Of course if parliament approves the arrest of the patriarch then it will happen." He added that the concordat grants immunity only to the patriarch, not to the Patriarchate as an institution.

However, some wonder why the patriarch needs immunity and whether the state should grant it. Levan Ramishvili, director of the Tbilisi-based human rights group the Liberty Institute, complained that unlike in the case of parliamentary deputies, there is no procedure for lifting the patriarch's immunity should that be needed. "When the Patriarchate was asked about this immunity it said that it was needed to protect the independence of the Church from the government, in case the government tried to depose the patriarch and impose someone more favourable," he told Keston from Tbilisi on 22 October. "Let's look at who else was seeking immunity. Wasn't [Chilean former military ruler] Pinochet?"

Andriadze admitted that he knew of no other religious leader apart from the Pope who has it. He asked Keston whether the Archbishop of Canterbury had such immunity in Britain (Lambeth Palace told Keston that he does not).

Russian officials have told Keston that Russian Orthodox Patriarch Aleksy does not enjoy immunity from prosecution. The Armenian Church headquarters at Echmiadzin told Keston that the head of the Armenian Church Catholicos Karekin likewise does not enjoy immunity. (END)