Georgia’s Patriarch Ilia II spoke out against surrogacy on Orthodox Christmas, prompting a sharp reaction from human rights groups. But the underlying issue isn’t about family values. It’s about the struggle Georgia is facing in defining its national values.
For his January 6th Christmas Eve epistle, Ilia II, Patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church, used the Orthodox commemoration of the birth of Christ to espouse his opposition to assisted reproductive technology and to reiterate his enmity to sexual minorities and his mistrust of the European Union. While the 81-year old Church leader’s stance on homosexuality and the West comes as no shock to us in Georgia, his position against surrogacy and in vitro fertilization struck a nerve among many Georgians who feel the Patriarch should not be condemning a person’s right to have a child.
“How can a family, where a child born by a surrogate mother is raised, be happy? This little (child) is doomed to be deprived of love and is doomed to loneliness from the very beginning,” the Patriarch stated.
The issue here, however, isn’t really about test tube babies or whether a man who has some 16,000 godchildren understands anything about reproduction. It’s about the Church’s fear of losing relevancy in the 21st century.
It is widely accepted that Georgia became the second nation in the world to accept Christianity as a state religion in 337 and gained autocephaly in the 8th century. Despite the waves of invading hordes of Mongols, Byzantians, Arabs, Seljuk Turks, Ottomans and Persians over the centuries, Georgians managed to maintain their faith. It’s a subject Georgians are intensely proud of.
Ironically, the fellow Christian nation of Russia probably did more damage to the Georgian Orthodox Church than any other entity. To protect itself from the Turks and Muslims in the early 19th century, Georgia became a protectorate of Russia, which aggressively Russified the Church and stripped it of its autocephaly. Although it had regained its autocephaly during Georgia’s short-lived independence after the fall of the Czar, communism all but destroyed what was left of the institution of Georgian Orthodoxy. Church leaders were arrested or executed and replaced by a “red clergy” that undermined the Church from within. Following the death of Patriarch Efram II in 1972, David Devdariani, who had received his theological education selling meat pies at a village train station, became the next Patriarch, literally stealing the position from Bishop Ilia Shiolashvili. Under David V, corruption flourished and large amounts of Church treasures were stolen.
At the fall of communism, the Church faced a reality vacuum as clerics sought to revitalize religious life at a time the rest of society was facing an identity crisis. The Church embraced the philosophy of ethnic nationalism Georgia’s first freely-elected post-Soviet president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia had advocated. And it began to grow. When Ilia II became the patriarch in 1977, following David V’s death, there were only about 50 priests. Today there are around 1,700.
Walking the chalkline
As ethnic nationalism took root, so did the notion “I am Georgian therefore I am a Georgian Orthodox Christian.” It’s not that people really started going to church. Even today with over 80% of the country’s 4.5 million people considering themselves Orthodox Christians, only about 15% – 25% actively participate in rituals. But this is a conservative, chauvinistic society deeply tied to its history and its traditions, where a woman is expected to be a virgin before marriage and a homemaker thereafter. In some cases, people still kidnap brides and even perform honor killings in the regions. It’s this folk-mentality that the Church has tapped directly into, so if you criticize the Church, you are criticizing the nation. This is what makes Illia II, the Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia, the most trusted person in the country, with a 95% approval rating, according to the latest surveys.
While the constitution stipulates a separation between church and state, a 2002 concordat defined this relationship by granting the Church official recognition in Georgia and a special consultive role in the government, particularly in education. In 2004, when Mikheil Saakashvili’s administration came to power, the government had to walk a fine line between the Church and its goals of western integration. In 2005, authorities arrested Basil Mkalavishvili, a defrocked priest who lead his congregation on viscous attacks against Jehovah’s Witnesses and Baptists in an effort to purge the country of outside faiths. While Mkalavishvili was an extremist, the fact that his attacks had gone with impunity for years reflects the irrational fears and intolerance to “non-traditional” faiths that exist in society.
Meanwhile, Saakashvili was giving tax payer money and property to the Church. In 2009, he awarded the Patriarchy a $15 million grant – 3 times the amount of the previous year – and presented luxury SUVs for each of the church’s 10 archbishops. But this wasn’t enough for many of the conservative elements within the Church, who are also pro-Russian. Examples of the Church’s ultra-conservative eruptions included warnings that the practice of yoga is full of false “charms” which lures people away from God, that having a cafe in Tbilisi called “Buddha” was sacrilegious and that paying homage to the American holiday of halloween was equally blasphemous. Even with Mkalavishvili behind bars, some radical Christian groups continued to fiercely protest “menaces” to the state, like the Tbilisi State University, for publishing a book written by a student that mocked the Church.
The sword of the lord
Although the Church is supposed to remain politically neutral, many priests voiced their displeasure with Saakashvili and openly supported his opponent, Bidzina Ivanishvili, in the 2012 parliamentary elections. As Ivanishvili’s coalition has many bigoted and xenophobic members, the Church found fertile ground to assert its influence on the nation and saw the election victory as a green light to go on the offensive.
On May 17th, 2013, several dozen Georgian Orthodox priests led a bloodthirsty mob of tens of thousands of people through the streets of Tbilisi on a violent attack against a small group of LGBT rights activists who were commemorating International Day Against Homophobia. The day before, the priests cruised the neighborhoods of Tbilisi to mobilize people to fight the evil homosexuals, after Ilia II called on the government to prohibit the demonstration and declared that homosexuality was an “anomaly and disease.” At the end of the day, Bishop Jakob, a contender for the Patriarchy after Ilia passes, boasted in the Holy Trinity cathedral that the Georgian nation showed a moral example of its strength and that the church was a political entity to be reckoned with.
Gays are not the only scapegoats. After the 2012 elections, clerics stepped up their opposition to Georgian Muslims. In several villages across the country, Christian locals prevented their Muslim neighbors from holding prayers. Last June, one local Muslim leader was forced to leave his community in east Georgia because he feared for his life. At one point, Christians went to his house and beat his wife. In September, authorities pulled down a minaret from a village near the Turkish border because they claimed it had been erected illegally. Upon returning it to the village, a group of activists lead by priests blocked the road to prevent its restoration. The move was applauded by Bishop Jakob, who guaranteed the minaret would not be rebuilt (although it has).
Following the Patriarch’s epistle, demonstrators gathered in front of the Patriarchate on January 8th to protest the his statement, including the director of a surrogacy clinic. Representatives of a radical Christian group, People’s Hall of All Georgia, also showed up to defend the Patriarch and attacked human rights activists. Four people were detained and charged with hooliganism.
I can wash my own feet
The Church’s comfort zone is in the isolation it inherited from the Soviets. Rather than reform after communism, philosopher Zaza Piralishvili says the Church chose to pursue an “imitation of medieval rhetoric.” Irakli Chonia, a former government official, once noted how the Church “is resistant to innovations and social changes and is characterized by a disgusting attitude towards other non-Orthodox western churches and the Islamic world.”
It is against this background that His Holiness Ilia II is making his holiday appeal against assisted birth. On his Easter address last year, he called on the government to adopt anti-abortion legislation. The abortion rate has always been high in Georgia. In 2005, women had an average of 3.1 abortions in their lifetime, giving Georgia the highest ratio in the world. Yet, the moral question to the right to life wasn’t the only thing on the Patriarch’s mind. He is also concerned with Georgia’s problematic demographic condition. The rise of sex-selective abortions in Georgia over the years has changed the boy to girl ratio of births from 105 to 100 in 1991 to nearly 114 to 100 in 2011.
In an effort to persuade people to abstain from abortions for economic reasons, Illia II promised, “the Church will take care of the children.” But how capable is the Church of rearing children? The state currently has no legal means to regulate the Church’s facilities for homeless and disabled children and the Church doesn’t even know how many children are in the orphanages it runs. We do know that neither the state nor the Church would be able to afford to care for the 33,801 potential births per year. Jumpstart Georgia, open-source data compilers and advocates, calculated Georgia would need 16 times more money than the current state children care budget to take care of all the children, if abortions became children deprived of parental care, after the first year.
Christian Orthodoxy is part and parcel of Georgian culture, but somehow the teachings of Christ got derailed along the way. While Christ preached love and forgiveness, some Georgian clerics preach hate against sexual and religious minorities because “it’s not Georgian.” When Ilia II says women should wash their husband’s feet and obey them based on God’s commandments, he is fantasizing a bygone era the western world left behind centuries ago. While there are no doubt many Georgian families that would love a life where a man is “the guardian and breadwinner” and a woman is “responsible for housekeeping and raising children,” as Ilia II praises, economic and social realities have changed.
Instead, praise a man that can wash his own feet and a woman that can work and raise a family. Support a couple who want to use science so they can have children and raise them in God’s world. Understand homosexuality is not a contagious disease and that everybody is a child of God regardless of their religion and sexual orientation. Promote birth control and safe sex to reduce the number of abortions. And remember, westernization is not a threat to Georgia, primitive hyperbole is. Some have forgotten that one of Georgia’s greatest virtues is its tradition of tolerance.
*From Beacon Reader Jan 13, 2014