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Lesson for the Georgian Church

07 September 2012

The Georgian Orthodox Church is facing questions about its privileges, says Richard Harries


Established: the Christmas procession at Tbilisi Cathedral in January

Established: the Christmas procession at Tbilisi Cathedral in January

CHURCHGOING is fashionable among young people in the republic of Georgia. The political and cultural élite in the country, however, are sceptical about how deep this goes. They point out that people can even buy special "fasting cakes" at the more fashionable stores.

This divergence in outlook high­lights one of the interesting para­doxes about religion in Georgia at the moment. The Georgian Ortho­dox Church enjoys 80-per-cent popular support, and Patriarch Ilya II is the most revered figure in the country. But the young élite are thoroughly liberal and fairly secular in their approach - much more like their counterparts in Western Europe, to whom they look.

One result of this is that there is tension over how much religious equality there should be for religions other than the Orthodox Church. The government is determined to have full equality, and on 5 July last year the Civil Code of Georgia was amended to allow registration of faith groups as religious associations. In addition to being a legal entity in private law, they can now become a legal entity in public law.

So far, at least nine groups have registered. But the government has had to push this through against popular opinion. The Patriarch told a visiting parliamentary delegation from Britain last year that he backed this move, but, in reality, his attitude has emerged as more ambivalent.

DESPITE the new Civil Code, the Orthodox Church retains an en­trenched position of privilege, because by the Constitution Agree­ment (Concordat) of 14 October 2002, it has a number of privileges that are not available to other groups. The most controversial are tax exemptions, and annual funding from the state budget. This is re­sented by the 18-20 per cent of the population made up of minority faiths, who pay taxes but do not re­ceive any state funding.

The government is doing what it can to support the minorities, and has set up a Tolerance Centre under the auspices of the Public Defender. This enables leaders of the minority groups, who include Seventh-day Adventists and the Armenian Church, to meet regularly to plan reforms.

This tension over religion is in­tegrally related to a struggle over values for the emerging Georgia. The Patriarch's views are extremely con­servative, not least his views on the part played by women in society.

Recently, there was a small pro-gay demonstration in the capital, Tbilisi, which was broken up vio­lently by some monks. A leading priest in the city said that he had not been present, but that, if he had been, he would have joined in forcibly to break up the group. All this is inimical to the young Western-orientated government, but it seems to represent the attitude of many in the population.

GEORGIA is a wonderful country, which is developing dynamically under its energetic and talented president, Mikheil Saakashvili. It has a rich culture, and a splendid history of tolerance, with long-standing Jewish and Muslim communities. It would be a pity if this were lost. Is there a way in which the Georgian Orthodox Church can still be the Church of the Georgian people, as historically it has been, and have the support of the minority faiths?

Perhaps the Church of England can in some way be a role model. There have been very good rela­tions between Patriarch Ilya II and Lam­beth Palace in recent decades, with reciprocal visits. In the past, it has of course been an op­pressive institu­tion. Now, however, its position is one that can best be described as one of symbolic privilege. Whether this can be jus­tified depends on two factors: first, whether full religious rights are accorded to other groups; and, second, how broadly acceptable this is to other religious bodies.

At the moment, we have the inter­esting situation where the strongest defenders of the establishment of the Church of England are Jewish and Muslim leaders. They feel that it helps the part played by their own faith in society.

NO SOCIETY is neutral, and its institutions will always reflect its history, culture, and religion. There is nothing inherently wrong with having an established Church, pro­vided that the rights of other re­ligions are fully respected. So there is nothing wrong, in principle, with the Georgian Orthodox Church's con­tinuing to have a symbolic priv­ilege.

Unlike the Church of England, it is not an established Church, but it is the historic Church of the Georgian people. At the moment, however, its privilege is more than symbolic; so the question is whether it is willing and able to make the necessary con­cessions to win the support of the other faiths in playing this part.

The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentre­garth, a former Bishop of Oxford, is Gresham Professor of Divinity.

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