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Priests and poison may sound like a page taken out of Umberto Eco's "The Name of the Rose", but it was an actual occurrence in the small Caucasus country of Georgia this month. On February 10, a high-ranking Georgian Orthodox priest was apprehended at the international airport in Tbilisi, as he was preparing to visit the head of the Georgian church, Patriarch Ilia II. The patriarch was undergoing medical treatment in Germany. The priest was found to be carrying cyanide.
The story came as a shock to the deeply devout Georgians, for whom Ilia II has served as a role model since he took over the leadership of the Orthodox Church in 1977. "This was a treacherous attack on the church. An act against our country has been prevented," Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili railed in a statement made shortly after the arrest.
Days later, Deacon Giorgi Mamaladze - the poison-laden prelate - was charged with conspiracy to murder. Several days after that, it surfaced that the target of the attack was not the patriarch himself, but rather someone else in his circle.
The incident was a reminder of how the Georgian church is just as riven with divisions as the rest of society. For, while it has been tremendously successful at playing political parties against one another in order to push its agenda over the course of the last two decades, the Georgian Orthodox Church is as fragile as any of the parties that it has outlived; its power resting in the charismatic and ageing patriarch, whose health has been a source of concern in recent years.
"As the patriach's health worsens, I expect there to be some power struggles within the church. This will undoubtedly affect the church's popularity, because a lot of that stems from people's respect for the patriach himself," Gia Tarkhan-Mouravi, co-director of the Tbilisi-based Institute for Political Studies, told bne IntelliNews in an interview.
The role of the church in the fledgling Georgian democracy has prompted many controversies over the years. Following decades of secular Soviet rule, during which religion was officially permitted but de facto severely restricted, the church blossomed together with the young Georgian democracy in the early 1990s.
Under Ilia II, the Georgian Orthodox Church successfully tapped into its ancient history (the Georgian Kingdom of Kartli declared Orthodoxy its state religion in the fourth century) to associate itself with the reawakened Georgian nationalism of the 1990s in the popular consciousness. Over the following decades, the church turned into a symbol of stability in a frequently volatile political environment; at the moment many Georgians view Christian Orthodoxy as the essence of Georgianness. Over 83% of Georgians adhere to this religion, in a country that opinion polls have shown to be among the most religious in the world.
Ostensibly, the church and the state are separate, reflecting Georgia's aspirations to become a Western-style democracy. But in reality, the freedom and non-discrimination guaranteed by the constitution to religious and other minorities are frequently violated. Meanwhile, thanks to state support, its influence on education and political life, Christian Orthodoxy is thriving to the detriment of all other religions.
The church's popularity has not been lost on political parties of different colourings, which have rushed to kiss the patriarch's hand to get in the electorate's good graces. A survey carried out in 2016 found that 74% of respondents would not vote for a party that had criticised the church.
While the previous administration of the United National Movement (UNM) had a more chequered relation with the patriarchate, the current ruling party – Georgian Dream – enjoys widespread support from the institution. Officially, the church has to maintain political neutrality as per a 2012 decision of the Holy Synod, the Georgian Orthodox Church's ruling body. In practice, that decision is rarely enforced and politics frequently makes its way into Sunday masses.
Over time, the Georgian Orthodox Church has garnered so much influence that no one in Georgia dares stand up to it. The church's representatives are de facto above criticism - and sometimes even above the law. And that is a dangerous place to be for a young democracy, seeing how some of the institution's positions and some of its representatives' actions have been morally, and occasionally legally, questionable.
Its own agenda
The Georgian church's standing in local politics is legally tenuous. As per a 2002 agreement or Concordat signed between the patriarchate and the state, the church has a consultative role in government. However, as the church's power over domestic politics has been increasing, so has its financial clout. The same 2002 agreement granted the church the right to financial support as compensation for the damages inflicted upon it during the Soviet period. In practice, that has translated into ever increasing levels of financial state support for the church. In 2014 and 2015, that amount was more than GEL31mn (€11mn).
And, as an investigation by Opendemocracy revealed, the non-monetary contributions from the state have been equally as generous. In 2014-2015 alone, the patriarchate received transfers of 66 real estate properties amounting to 65,000 square metres from the government. Most of these properties are used to build religious establishments, thus violating the constitutional principle of religious neutrality.
Speaking of religious neutrality, the Orthodox Church has been the driving force behind a wave of xenophobic, racist and discriminatory attitudes amongst Georgians. Case in point, the LGBTQ minority has frequently found itself on the receiving end of religiously-fuelled discrimination in recent years.
In May 2013, a small anti-sexual discrimination demonstration staged by the LGBTQ community to mark the international day against homo- and transphobia turned violent when it was dispersed by a crowd of Orthodox priests and their supporters. Dozens were injured that day. But not one of the hundreds interrogated later was found guilty by the Georgian justice system.
Triumphant, the patriarchate declared May 17 – the day when the event took place – as the "Day of the Family" in the country. As a result, ever since 2013, the ostracised LGBTQ community has been unable to join like-minded communities from around the world in peacefully demonstrating against discrimination, because the church has used it to rally its own supporters in favour of "family" values.
But the church's battle against LGBTQ does not end there. In 2016, a bill made its way into parliament to define marriage as the union between a man and a woman. Seeing how gay marriage is not legal in Georgia, the initiative seemed to have no legal aim. Rather, it was a token gesture that would have amounted to the government effectively vilifying gay marriage to reflect the Georgian church's position on the issue. The bill was stopped at the last minute by President Giorgi Margvelashvili, but not before intense public debate and a show of support from the church and other conservative elements in society.
In a country that aspires to one day become an EU member state and which passed a law banning all forms of discrimination in 2014, the bill and the public debate surrounding it appeared superfluous and out of place. While the majority of Georgians remain conservative, and the LGBTQ community in the country is small, it is hard to justify the church's crusade against an already disenfranchised community as anything else but a populist attempt to take advantage of the public's disapproval of sexual minorities to bolster its own image as a guarantor of conservative, family values. But in so doing, the Orthodox Church positioned itself as a relentless Goliath going after a much smaller and weaker David, a comparison that was clearly lost on the prelates themselves.
Between West and East
But while the church has spoken in one voice on the issue of gay marriage, the same cannot be said about other political issues. Take Georgia's European accession, for instance. The aspiration to join the bloc became mainstream in Georgia during the administration of former President Mikheil Saakashvili, who did not enjoy the church's support to the same extent that the current government does.
In order to persuade the electorate that membership in the bloc did not equate to Georgia accepting "liberal" values such as gay marriage, the Dutch and British embassies in Georgia financed a project to educate priests about the EU, in order to have them educate their parishioners in turn. The patriarchate okayed the programme, which was coordinated in part by its education centre.
However, anecdotal evidence suggests that not all priests are behind the patriarchate's pro-European drive, and that priests frequently and openly criticise "the West" and "Western values" in church.
Meanwhile, the close relations between the Russian and Georgian Orthodox Churches, even at times when their countries were at war, have prompted criticism that the Georgian church serves as a tool of Russian propaganda in the country. In a rare gesture of breaking with the Russian government's policy, in 2008 the Russian Holy Synod passed a resolution recognising the Georgian patriarchate’s jurisdiction of the dioceses of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two embattled regions that the Kremlin recognises as being independent.
Some Georgian prelates responded to such criticism with accusations of their own. Father Giorgi Zviadadze, rector of the Tbilisi Spiritual Academy, called the allegations that the church served the purposes of Russian propaganda ignorant. "We are teaching our Orthodox teachings. We don't use propaganda," he said during a speech in 2013.
"I would not overestimate the church's influence on foreign policy," Tarkhan-Mouravi argues. "The patriachate has more sway when it comes to domestic policies, particularly those related to family law, LGBTQ rights, and education. While there are some ties with the Russian Orthodox Church, which is a state institution in that country, and it has come to the defence of Georgia's western orientation repeatedly, it is clear that the church itself does not have a clear orientation judging by its rejection of some western values," he added, mentioning that there are rumours of a schism between pro-Russian and anti-Russian elements in the church at the moment.
The patriarchate's position on foreign policy issues is important in swaying popular support for those issues one way or another. But the real source of the Georgian Orthodox Church's power is the influence of its prelates on local communities, where the government and foreign policy are distant and intangible concepts, but the local priests are omnipresent in community activities, and instrumental in shaping opinions, decisions and lives.
No government can claim to have such a direct line to people's "hearts and minds" as the church does in small villages. As long as Georgia's regions remain underdeveloped, the priests will continue to play a disproportionately important role in people's day-to-day lives. And politicians will continue to seek out the church to capitalise on its influence over people. And the separation of church and state in Georgia will continue to be as elusive as ever.
Reflections from our correspondents on the ground in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.
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