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Georgian Orthodox Church urges former president to end hunger strike

15 October 2021


Supporters of the former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili hold a rally near a prison in Rustavi, Georgia, last week

Supporters of the former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili hold a rally near a prison in Rustavi, Georgia, last week

THE Patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church has urged his country’s former president, Mikheil Saakashvili, to end a prison hunger strike as it violates Christian principles.

“With the blessing of Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II, Deacon Mikael Botkoveli met with him at Rustavi Penitentiary and imparted the Patriarch’s blessing,” the Orthodox Church said in a statement.

“On the behalf of the Church, a request that he stop hi hunger strike was communicated to him, since this is not a Christian deed.”

The appeal was made as Mr Saakashvili continued the protest a week after being arrested, after his unauthorised return to the capital Tbilisi from Ukraine.

The deacon told journalists, however, that the 53-year-old former head of state had rejected the request, and vowed not to “change his decision” on the hunger strike.

Mr Saakashvili, who followed pro-Western policies during two terms as President, from 2004 to 2013, was granted Ukrainian citizenship after fleeing Georgia in the wake of an election defeat. He served as regional governor of Odessa from 2015 to 2016 and now heads the executive committee of Ukraine’s National Reform Council.

He was stripped of Georgian citizenship and sentenced in absentia in 2018 for abuse of power — charges that he dismissed as politically motivated — and was declared a wanted person in his former country.

In his statement to journalists, Deacon Botkoveli said that Mr Saakashvili, who denounced his detention as unlawful, had not appeared “weakened by his hunger strike” during their prison meeting, and had “passed on his respect” to Patriarch Ilia.

The former president’s protest was harshly criticised in numerous posts on the Orthodox Patriarchate’s Facebook site: many recalled church-state conflicts during Mr Saakashvili’s presidency, and praised Patriarch Ilia’s conciliatory gesture.

The Orthodox Church traditionally claims the loyalty of four-fifths of the four million inhabitants of Georgia, where minority denominations have often complained of discrimination.

In a statement on Monday, the country’s prison service said that Mr Saakashvili’s “constantly monitored” condition remained “satisfactory”, and said that he did not, as his personal doctor has said, need hospital treatment.

The ex-president vowed to continue his hunger strike as “one of the tools of struggle”, and urged followers to attend a planned rally in Tbilsi to demand his release.

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