From the historical point of view, Georgia is an Orthodox-Christian state, populated by representatives of other religions. The second largest population are Muslims – both Shiites and Sunnis. From among 4.5 million citizens, around 300-400 thousand of them are Muslims. This group includes Georgians who live in the region of Adjara, which borders with Turkey. It is in this region that the religious conflict is swelling.
The context of the conflict
After the Turkish authorities returned historic Orthodox churches to all Christian communities living in Turkey (Greeks, Armenians, Russians etc.), the Georgian Orthodox Church expressed its willingness to renovate tens of Georgian religious buildings in the territory of north-western Turkey. At the beginning, Georgia wanted to renovate only a few churches which are of special significance for Georgian history and culture, most of all: Oshki, Handzta, Ishani and Othta. These monuments are an unquestionable element of Georgian national identity. The historical symbols are in the areas believed to have been the cradle of Georgian statehood, in which Georgian Bagrationi dynasty had its origin.
For Georgians, it is crucial not to allow the complete destruction of the churches. They are not only places of worship but also material proof of historical Georgian statehood in the territory of north-western Turkey. In exchange for permission for renovation of the churches, Turkey suggested a reconstruction of three mosques in Georgia and construction of another one. But, importantly in this case, Turkey is obliged by international law to conserve world heritage sites without making any conditions. Georgian Patriarchate citing this regulation has more than once suggested Georgian authorities should turn to UNESCO for help. The authorities, however, preferred to yield to Turkey, which caused a rising tide of unrest among Orthodox Christians. What arouses anxiety the most is the reconstruction of Azizie mosque in the centre of Batumi. The mosque was built in 1868 on the orders of sultan Abdul Aziz. It was to be a symbol of Turkey’s military power and the greatness of the Ottoman Empire in Adjara. Members of the Orthodox Church in Georgia are also annoyed by the fact that the construction of the mosque from scratch is officially called a “renovation” by both Turkish and Georgian side. It is not known where the mosque will be built, for since it burnt down in 1940s, a different building has been standing there. Controversy is also aroused by the problem of reconstruction of a half-ruined mosque in Akhaltsikhe (close to the border with Turkey).
During the years of Georgia’s independence (both in Adjara and other regions) around 300 Shiite and Sunni mosques were built, together with Islamic offices. In the region of Batumi, there are 10 schools teaching Islam, and they are all financed by Islamists from Turkey. There are two mosques in the capital of Georgia. For 20 years, Georgia has never demanded Turkey to build any new Orthodox churches or even reconstruct old Georgian ones in Turkey in exchange for reconstruction of the mosques.
Towards the end of 2011, Ilia II of Georgia sent a letter to the Prime Minister of Turkey with a request for returning at least a few churches to Georgia. The Georgian Patriarchate considered it unfair that mosques in Georgia are renovated, while Orthodox churches in Turkey deteriorate. Georgian clergymen suggested the following solution: as compensation for hundreds of mosques in Georgia, they demanded reconstruction of two out of four historical churches. In north-western Turkey (called “the Kingdom of Tao-Klarjeti” by Georgians) Islamic Georgians live. That is why reconstruction of Georgian churches has a rather historical and cultural meaning, while the newly-built mosques in Georgia can become fully functioning religious centres instead of museums and architecture monuments. Thus, “reconstruction” of the mosques can become a political symbol of Turkish presence in Adjara and other border regions, where economic and cultural influence of Turkey is already perceptible.
The authorities of Georgia did not wait for Turkey’s reply to the letter from the Georgian Patriarch, agreed on Turkey’s conditions and expressed readiness for reconstruction of mosques in Georgia in exchange for repair of Orthodox churches in Turkey. The media reported on this fact at the time when the Patriarch was in Germany, which only made the news sound worse. The authorities did not reveal the details of the initial agreement with Turkey, which aroused unrest among the members of the Orthodox Church. Simultaneously, Georgian government denied reports on the possibility of increased Turkish influence in Georgia practised through the growing number of mosques. On the other hand, after the wave of protests in the country, the authorities try to present the concept of the mosques reconstruction not as a conservation of Turkish cultural heritage sites but rather as a preservation of the heritage of the Georgian Muslims. Unfortunately, this kind of policy is not appreciated by Georgian society. Having discussed the initial Turkey-Georgia agreement on mutual conservation of buildings of worship, on 9 February the Patriarch of Georgia published a statement, in which he accused the authorities of Georgia of conducting separate negotiations with Turkey. He also changed his tactics and demanded that at the Patriarchate’s expense a small Orthodox church be reconstructed in the oldest Episcopal city – Ardasheni. Only then will the Georgian Orthodox Church be ready to have the talks on reconstruction of churches in Turkey and Georgia. If, for some reason, Turkey does not accept the conditions, “we will not give consent to the construction of Azizie mosque – a symbol of a difficult page of our history – under pretence of preserving our monuments: Oshki and Ishani” – reads the Patriarch’s message.
Escalation of the conflict
The problem of the churches reconstruction stirs up a variety of emotions. The Georgian Orthodox Church has already warned the authorities that their actions may provoke conflicts between Muslims and Christians. Georgia has never seen such a tension between these two groups. Interestingly enough, Georgian Muslims living in Adjara are against the construction of mosques at Turkey’s expense and under its patronage. The Patriarchate forewarns that the problem may cause a conflict within the country. It is worth mentioning that last year, after Georgian authorities adopted a bill on registration of religious associations, having not consulted the Patriarchate, there was a march of the members of the Orthodox Church. 100 thousand people demonstrated how big the Patriarchate’s influence on the citizens of Georgia is. The Church enjoys great popularity in Georgia, and the Patriarch always ranks high on the list of the most popular people, outdistancing all the political leaders. That is why such warnings from the Patriarchate cannot remain unseen by the authorities. After the Patriarch’s statement was published, an “admonitory mass” was organised in Batumi. This religious event was a political warning and a protest of the members of the Orthodox Church against the Georgia-Turkey agreement on the mosques in Georgia.
Translated by Marta Lityńska