First it was homosexuals, now it is Muslims. Next it will be everybody else. The Georgian Orthodox Church is supposed to be the “one true assembly” of the teachings of Jesus Christ, but lately, the organization has begun to resemble comic book villains bent on destroying the world, more than anything else.
It’s leaders view Georgia’s western path and the adoption of modern western values as a threat to the influence it has acquired since the shackles of communism disintegrated two decades ago. Unsatisfied with its privileged status as the state religion, the Church wants to play a more dominating role in the country’s political life. Caring for the spiritual needs of its flock is not enough.
It’s a dangerous game, particularly as politicians are jumping the Holy bandwagon and declaring liberal western values will destroy Georgia’s ancient traditions. Persecuting scapegoats is the work of demigods. Its a tactic that has proven disastrous time and time again. But finding solutions to the predominate problems like unemployment and affordable healthcare, that’s the work of heroes.
A few of my Moscow Times stories on the topic are below:
Georgia’s Anti-Muslim Crusade Gains Force(www.zawaj.com)
Imagine a church has erected a 10 meter cross in a little Georgian village and a month and a half later, police come to dismantle it and take it away, claiming it was erected illegally. Visualize a mob of angry Christians trying to prevent the desecration and getting arrested for hooliganism. We know such vagary is inconceivable in Georgia, not because 85% of the people claim to be Orthodox Christians, but because in Georgia, the Church is sacrosanct. Islam, however, is open game.
Last week, authorities brazenly pulled down a minaret in Chelo, a village near the Turkish border. The revenue service claimed customs formalities had not been performed on the pre-fab structure. Rather than consult local Muslims, officials demonstrated a show of force with helicopters and spetznaz, provoking resistance and the indignation of Georgia’s Muslim population. This imprudent move is the latest in a series of anti-Muslim crusades that have occurred across the country since vice-chairman of parliament, Murman Dumbadze, lead a protest against the construction of a mosque in Batumi last year, before parliamentary elections. He has since rescinded his views, but anti-Muslim sentiments have only grown.
Three days after being impounded, the minaret was returned to a site near Chela, but a group of Orthodox activists blocked the road in neighboring Akhaltsikhe to prevent its restoration. They also demanded a referendum on the construction of minarets in Georgia, which was a concept introduced the previous day by Justice Minister, Tea Tsulukiani.
The Georgian Patriarchy claims outside forces are provoking Christians and Muslims against each other to discredit the Church and the state. But the biggest force instigating division is the Church itself. Remember the priests who lead tens of thousands of people to violently attack LGBT activists last May? The same Bishop Jakob, who boasted of the success of that pogrom, applauded the group of Akhaltsikhe protesters and “guaranteed” that the minaret will not be re-erected. He said this after high ranking Georgian Orthodox and Muslim clerics discussed the return of the minaret and its re-erection after legal matters are resolved. The Church is not pacifying anybody by meddling in an issue that is clearly between the state and the Muslim community. And as long as the Georgian Church remains inviolable, there is very little the state will be able to do to guarantee religious freedom in Georgia.
Tbilisi is perhaps most renowned for its melting-pot legacy, where in a few short blocks in the Old Town you will see an Armenian Apostolic Church, Georgian Orthodox Church, mosque and synagogue. Some Georgians don’t understand just what this implies, like a taxi driver who recently told me: “These people have lived in our country in peace. Georgia is a tolerant country.”
“Our country” represents the chauvinistic conviction that Georgia’s first president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, used to divide and destroy his country in the early 1990s. The Georgian Orthodox Church adopted the same archaic nationalistic orientation after the yoke of communism vanished. Instead of continuing Georgia’s proud traditions of tolerance, political and religious leaders are repeating past mistakes by dividing Georgia along ethnic and religious lines.
In June, a local Muslim religious leader, Hajji Suliko Khozrevanidze, was forced to leave his community in east Georgia because he feared for his life. For weeks, up to 200 local Georgians calling themselves Christians would block the prayer house each Friday to prevent the Muslim community from holding prayers. At one point, the so-called Christians went to the Muslim leader’s house and beat his wife. Such anti-Muslim hysteria has been observed nationwide.
Georgian Orthodox Patriarch Ilia II said he would not let Muslims be oppressed. But not everybody heard him. Last week, a fight broke out in Pankisi Gorge allegedly between Muslim and Christian youths. This would be the first known religious confrontation between local Georgians and Kisti, ethnic Chechens who settled in the region 180 years ago. If this is the kind of behavior we are seeing between Georgians, what kinds of intolerance should we expect as more Asians, Africans and Middle Easterners settle in the country?
In July, parliament passed a law forbidding the sale of agriculture land to foreigners in response to the 2,000 Punjabi farmers that have immigrated and bought land in east Georgia. The same month, Levan Vasadze, a religiously conservative millionaire, became head of the Demographic Renaissance Foundation of Georgia, which was established to prevent an oncoming “demographic disaster.” Vasadze fears the Georgian gene pool is threatened.
In their zealous craze to protect Georgia’s traditions from outside influence, Georgian leaders are trampling its most distinguished heritage of tolerance, forgetting that justness, liberalism and understanding are the virtues of the tolerant society they claim to be safeguarding.
Georgia’s Homophobic Church
Why is everybody so aggressive?” I asked two priests standing at a bus stop as thousands of people ran by me in pursuit of gay activists. “Is this Christian behavior? Is this what Jesus would do?”
They did not answer, let alone look me in the eye. I’d meet another priest later, after I had barely escaped a savage mob of Georgian Orthodox Christians, who had no qualms explaining why people had every right to beat homosexuals. “It’s because they do it in public,” he said, simulating the act of sex with his hands and hips. “They are spreading propaganda and want to destroy Georgian traditions.”
Last year, when Georgia’s LGBT community held the first rally to mark International Day Against Homophobia, it ended in a scuffle with a handful of Orthodox Christian extremists who blocked their march. This year, the rally ended when a mob of over 20,000 bloodthirsty homophobes — led by cursing priests — broke through police barriers and chased a handful of demonstrators into the city streets, shouting, “Kill them!”
Friday’s obscenity in the name of the Lord was not about the Church’s stance against homosexuals as much as it was a manifestation of its power. Two days after Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili stated that sexual minorities were equal citizens of this country and that society would “gradually get used to it,” the patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Ilia II, called on the government to prohibit the demonstration. He said homosexuality was an “anomaly and disease” and that the rally would be “a violation of majority’s rights” and “an insult” to Georgian tradition. Church leaders then mobilized young men to assault homosexuals, much in the same way Nazis orchestrated mobs to attack Jews.
“We distance ourselves from violence,” Patriarch Ilia II said on television Friday. But distance is relative. I saw a priest stand proudly by as a throng of halfwits threw stones at 10 women and spit in the face of a female photographer — Georgian chivalry sanctioned by the church.
Ivanishvili issued the routine condemnation of violence and vowed that perpetrators will be punished, but nobody in Georgia is going to lay a hand on the Georgian Orthodox clergy responsible for Friday’s bestiality because they fear the church’s influence. There is truly something amiss when a government is impotent to a religious institution whose merciless leaders incite intolerance, hatred and murder against its fellow countrymen.
While the church’s goons were mopping up Tbilisi of its homosexual riffraff and helping homophobes attack people suspected of being gay, church leaders called on people to convene at The Holy Trinity Cathedral, which was built with Ivanishvili’s money. There, Bishop Jakob basked in the glorious victory of the day. He boasted that the Georgian nation showed a moral example of its strength and that the church was a political entity to be reckoned with.
“You know very well that [Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s] United National Movement required two and a half months to gather 5,000 people [for its April 19 rally],” Bishop Jakob said, adding that the church could have gathered a million people, if needed.
Ivanishvili is facing his first real test as a leader against a dangerous theocratic movement that speaks in Old Testament language of Deuteronomy and Leviticus. The authorities’ utter failure to prevent the violence means these extremists will become more emboldened. The government talks of European integration, but Georgia will remain isolated in the Dark Ages of irrelevance until its leaders have the guts to stand up for the equal rights of all its citizens and confront the dark forces of evil masquerading as Georgian Orthodox Christians.