Russia’s 5th Column: The Georgian Orthodox Church

On May 3rd, Georgia’s legislature passed an anti-discrimination bill, which is opposed by the Georgian Orthodox Church for the bill’s protection of homosexuals and transgender people. However, the Church’s homophobia is part of a larger “Europhobia” – a pro-Russian manifestation that aims to destabilize the country from within.

5th

In a video clip making the rounds on social media, armed thugs in eastern Ukraine are sitting around a desk decorated with an icon of the Virgin Mary, garnished with a pair of hand grenades and a bouquet of weeds in a plastic jug. One man is rapping lyrics off his computer to a song that espouses the maxim of the revolutionary pro-Russian movement – Russia is great, NATO is bad and Europe with its gay parades is sick.

If not for the fact the goons have taken over government buildings, are holding people hostage and are plunging the country to the brink of war, the music video could have been made in Georgia, where a vigorous anti-European movement is underway, fused by the zealous propagation of homophobia. At the forefront of the resistance is the Georgian Orthodox Church.

On May 3rd, Georgia’s legislature passed an anti-discrimination bill, a requisite for European integration and essential component of the Visa Liberalization Action Plan, an agreement that will grant Georgians a short-term visa-free regime in the EU. You would think that a bill that protects the rights of every citizen from discrimination would be unanimously applauded, particularly from an institution still recovering from 70 years of Soviet persecution. But the Georgian Patriarchy has a problem that “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” are included on the bill. Clerics warned in the language of fire and brimstone that the bill could provoke “clashes.”

The way the Georgian Orthodox Church sees it, homosexuals and transgender people should be punished for sinning, not protected for being human like everybody else. The Church is manipulating an irrational fear of homosexuality to mobilize its constituency, much like the Nazis targeted the Jews, and it is challenging the government’s moral authority because it wants to be the country’s power broker.  However, the Church isn’t as homophobic as it is Europhobic. The Europeanization of Georgia implies liberalism and freethinking – two concepts that scare the hell out of the Church.

Over 80% of Georgia’s 4.5 million people say they belong to the Georgian Orthodox Church, while surveys put the Patriarch’s popularity rating at 95%, making him the leader of the country’s most trusted institution. The Church practices a medieval dogma that it wraps in nationalism to coalesce its power base. “I am Georgian, therefore I am Christian,” is the national motto, despite the many Georgian Muslims and notwithstanding the fact that this attitude was largely responsible for the breakup of the country in the early 1990s.

Rather than learn from past mistakes and practice Christian principles of love and tolerance, the Church waxes abomination by leading violent manifestations against homosexuals and religious minorities. The aim is to simply keep its flock locked in some mythical past. Russia may be Georgia’s greatest external threat, but nothing poses more danger to Georgia internally than the Georgian Orthodox Church.

In March, the EU Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy, Štefan Füle came to Georgia, where he met Patriarch Ilia II to seek his blessing for Georgia’s EU integration efforts. Füle assured Ilia that signing the Association Agreement will not oblige Georgia to allow same-sex marriages, as opponents have claimed. “This is not an attempt by western countries to impose foreign values on Georgia,” he said. After the meeting, Ilia threw his support behind integration, although he still hasn’t come to terms with basic human rights, and this is worrying.

As Georgia’s efforts to consolidate democracy are acknowledged by its western partners, there is concern that the country isn’t doing enough to protect human rights. Identoba, the organization that orchestrated last year’s rally to commemorate International Day Against Homophobia on May 17th will not assemble this year, because nobody can guarantee the demonstrators’ safety. While we can forgive a cleric’s ignorance when he says “we don’t want a Europe where homosexuality is legalized,” it’s hard to forget the spectacle of raging priests leading a savage mob of thousands of people through the center of the capitol to assault a few gay rights defenders.

Prime Minister Davit Usupashvili stated that the Anti-Discrimination Bill was about choosing between Europe and Russia. Parliament made its choice with 115 votes to 1 and has won the battle, but the Church, which says it must analyze the bill, has made it clear the war is not over.

*Originally published May 3, 2014 at Beacon Reader

(Header image borrowed from the Taburetka Facebook page)


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