International Orthodox Christian News

Georgia: Faith is the fashion, as Church influence soars

Nearly two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Georgian Orthodox Church has become one of the most prominent actors in Georgia’s social and political life.

While the church is not recognized as an official state religion, it carries an increasingly powerful punch. This fact was underscored when Patriarch Ilia II served as intermediary between government and opposition during the tumult that followed Georgia’s disputed 2008 presidential elections. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Most recently, the 76-year-old church leader and his deputies have acted as de facto diplomatic go-betweens with Moscow.

That growing importance is reflected in the amount of money the church receives from Georgia’s state budget. In 2009, the sum increased nearly threefold to 25 million lari, or about $15 million. (Church officials could not be immediately reached to say how they plan to spend the added funds).

The church’s rising influence is also reflected in polls. In 2003, 38.6 percent of 1,000 respondents in a survey conducted for Tbilisi’s International Center on Conflict and Resolution named the patriarchy as Georgia’s most trustworthy institution. By 2008, the number had jumped to 86.6 percent.

As Georgians seek ways to affirm their national identity after years of wars, dysfunctional governments and economic decline, that heft is only likely to increase, predicted sociologist Giorgi Nijaradze, who conducted the poll. "Now it is much more difficult to say you are atheist, for example, than it was four or six years ago," Nijaradze commented. "[P]eople consider themselves obliged to declare their respect toward the Church; they are very afraid to say something against it."

One of the oldest organized faiths in the world, Georgian Orthodoxy has endured through recurring invasions by Arabs, Turks, Mongols, Persians and Russians. To most Georgians, it has stood the test of time -- a key quality in a period when many sense that an outside power, Russia, again threatens Georgia’s statehood.

Church leaders now seem increasingly confident in speaking out on behalf of religion and the church itself. In January, for example, the Georgian Orthodox patriarchate issued a "request" to remove canonized saints from a competition broadcast on the Georgian Public Broadcasting channel that wanted viewers to vote for the 10 most influential figures in Georgian history.

A January 10 statement from the patriarchate that deemed competition between saints and secular figures "unacceptable" led to the program being taken temporarily off the air. (The 11th-12th century King David the Builder, a canonized saint, held first place at the time, leading former President Zviad Gamsakhurdia).

In public remarks, members of Georgian Public Broadcasting’s board of directors seemed torn between the church’s wishes and their responsibility to broadcast programs not influenced by any given interest group. "The opinion of the patriarch is more important for me than the law," board member Mikheil Chiaureli told reporters on January 16.

Ultimately, the program, called "The Big Ten," was reinstated within a week, but with significant changes to its format. While 13 saints remain in the running, the program has opted to list the final 10 contenders by alphabetical order rather than by numerical ranking.

While all sides seem satisfied for now, questions linger over how powerful the patriarchate is -- and how it will wield its authority in the future. Patriarchate spokesperson Father Davit Sharashenidze maintains that the statement about the show was merely an "opinion" and was never intended to influence the television station.

"We have our opinion, and we can say it because we live in a democratic country," commented Father Davit, speaking in English. "It was just an opinion, but somehow there was some speculation of some so-called politicians . . . trying to [portray] the church [as] a medieval institution that is pressing the television channel. It was absolutely wrong."

In a January 22 statement, the patriarchate complained that "someone wants to portray the church as a censor, which is trying to restrict freedom of speech." The statement also suggested that such portrayals were intended to intimidate church leaders, including Patriarch Ilia II, into refraining from expressing their opinions. The controversy, the patriarchate added, is "artificial," according to an English translation posted on the news bulletin service

But at least one Georgian Public Broadcasting board members, Irma Sokhadze, believes that if any individual or institution is trying to intimidate its opponents, it is the church. Sokhadze contended that the patriarchate’s criticism of the television show put the board in an "unbearable" situation. "Let’s say [it] openly: Today it is unthinkable to ignore a personal request from the patriarch, Ilia II, because his authority is tremendous."

According to Sokhadze, the board was forced to shut down the program because the pressure was simply too great. "Of course, you can say that it was not a demand. . . but a request that comes from the patriarchate, which is repeated [for] four or five days and posted on the patriarch’s site . . . " she said. "Say what you will, but that is very hard not to pay attention to that."

However, some outside observers, like the non-governmental organization the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association (GYLA) believe that the real problem was not the patriarch’s statement, but how the television station reacted. "In our understanding, the church was exercising its rights to express its views and opinions and they have the right to do that," GYLA board chairperson Tamara Khidasheli said.
Meanwhile, on the streets of Tbilisi, public expressions of faith are becoming ever more commonplace. Pedestrians and drivers alike routinely stop in front of churches -- or within sight of a church -- to cross themselves. Small shops selling icons and religious paraphernalia are multiplying rapidly. A clerk at one such shop in central Tbilisi estimated that some 100-150 customers now visit her store each day.

"To be faithful . . . has become fashionable," concluded sociologist Nijaradze. "It has become the social norm."

Editor's Note: Molly Corso is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi. Temo Bardzimashvili is a freelance photographer also based in Tbilisi.

Posted on Thu Feb 12 2009 EurasiaNet Civil Society
Text by Molly Corso; Photos by Temo Bardzimashvili 2/11/09


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