Several people – priests among them – have been officially charged over the May rally against an anti-homophobia march on the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia in Tbilisi, when members of Georgian Orthodox Church attacked LGBT activists in the center of the capital. In the aftermath, many citizens state that the police should become more strict while dealing with such situations, fearing the growing influence of Church over the public and state institutions. However, at the same time the majority of Georgians remain avid supporters of Georgian Orthodox Church.
During the rally as well as the investigation process against the offenders after the event, the police showed some reluctance, obviously not wanting to use force against or irritate the churchmen. Few people were arrested and later quickly freed after paying some minor fines. Police also charged two priests, but no arrests followed, though some media reports showed evidences that priests had been active participants of the rally and at least encouraged the crowd to attack LGBT activists.
Since May 17, several citizens who might look like homosexuals due to colorful, “unmanly” clothing or extravagant hair color have been attacked.
In response to the events from Friday, More than 13 000 Georgians signed an online statement demanding the punishment of all those who broke the law and not to differentiate between priests and other citizens. Many people rallied on May 18 and later on May 24, protesting against violence committed by clergymen and their supporters, urging the state to establish a firmer control over the Church. Counter-rallies held by more conservative groups went alongside, demanding that the propaganda of homosexuality should be legally banned. This time police managed to ensure a safe line between the two groups of protesters.
May 17 showed that the Georgian Church is capable of bringing thousands of Georgians into the street and control the crowd better than the police. Only a few people had been talking about the dominance of the Church in Georgian public life before the events that took place in the center of Tbilisi. Now the number of those asking where the Georgian society might end up – if it continues following the Church – is seemingly higher.
The (national) Church
The influence of Georgian Orthodox Church has been rising after the collapse of the Soviet Union when many Georgians returned to religion.
Yet the history of the Georgian Orthodox Church is almost as long as the history of Georgia itself, being the undisputed cornerstone of Georgian identity. Its Orthodox faith kept Georgia different from its neighbor Muslim states and the Catholic world. Furthermore, its religion drove Georgia towards Russia, another Orthodox state. Orthodoxy defined the course of Georgian history in many cases, or, as it is taught in Georgian schools, Orthodoxy kept Georgia alive through centuries.
In the 1990s, Georgia was a weak state suffering from poverty and military conflicts. The idea of being Georgian, keeping the Orthodox faith and Georgian language seemed all that Georgia got from its independence from the Soviet Union. Thus Georgians might have exaggerated the importance of nationality and religion and, as a result, Georgia developed a rather nationalistic state intolerant to minorities. In 2002 the Orthodox Church and the state signed a constitutional agreement that gave the Church a special status among all other confessions and guaranteed state financing.
After the Rose Revolution in 2003, when Georgian economy and its state institutions got stronger, the affection towards the Church was already glued in. Seeing the support of the citizens towards the Church, the state has never questioned its actions. Georgian politicians, those religious ones as well as atheists, are frequent churchgoers and many of them can be seen kissing the hand of the Patriarch, especially before the elections. Wealthier citizens became eager donors of the Church. Schools, which role has become more prominent as state institutions, started promoting Orthodox values among younger generations. Many Georgians have their personal priests and keep fasting. One of the most popular Facebook fanpage – after the popularization of social media in Georgia – has been “I Love My Patriarch”.
Georgian Orthodox Church is a financially strong institution, untouched by the authorities. More than 20 million GEL (around 9.5 million EUR) is given to the church annually by the state. Orthodox Church does not pay taxes and is free in disposition of its funds. Individual congregations donate significant money to local churches and many priests live a rather wealthy life compared to Georgian average.
Some clergymen lack proper education and promote intolerance and gender inequality. The Patriarch has also called on Georgians to follow a strict, conservative path on number of occasions and many take the word of the clergymen seriously.
For the first time in the history of Georgia, people started to ask whether it is time for the state to limit the Church influence in the public sphere instead of catering to the needs of the clergy. The public has not decided yet, though there are signs that at least some Georgians have outgrown blind subordination to priests.
The Chairman of the Parliament Davit Usupashvili criticized the Patriarch for his pre-rally speech that contained homophobic statements. It was a milestone, for any censure against the Church requires both political will and courage.
Nevertheless, the government is walking on a thin line here as it is yet unclear whether Georgians are seriously concerned about the Church influence or the anger will simply go away. If the government is not smart enough then the same crowd will start chasing its members instead of LGBT activists.
Re-defining the role of the Orthodox Church in Georgia promises to be a painful process in the near future.