Some members of the Orthodox Christian clergy and congregation have captured the attention of the society recently with a number of aggressive activities. First, monks and priests of the Davit Gareji monastery started talking about the seizure of territories of that complex, accusing representatives of the government of treason. Then, extremist Orthodox Christian organizations disrupted a rally against homophobia and transphobia by preventing participants from marching in the demonstration and then provoking a fistfight with them.
Those two recent incidents were a prelude to the Sunday sermon of Chorbishop Iakob Iakobishvili at the Holy Trinity Cathedral on 20 May. He warned critics of the Church that the patience of the Patriarchate is not limitless and, if they did not stop their criticism, the nation of Christ would force everyone to their senses. The Chorbishop finally made clear in his sermon that the Patriarchate, using its authority, tried to demonstrate its force in both incidents.
It is noteworthy that the sermon of Chorbishop Iakob from the ambo of Georgia’s main cathedral did not represent only the personal opinions of that one bishop. As he himself said, that is the attitude of the entire Church and its leader. Chorbishop holds the status of Patriarch’s vicar, or Patriarch’s deputy, and every word articulated by him in public must be read as the word of the Patriarch.
In his sermon, Chorbishop Iakob spoke about the Davit Gareji monastery and declared: “We will defend Georgia to the last drop of blood… whether it be in Gareji or any other place.”
The clergy, along with certain politicians anxious to capitalize politically on the created controversy, did not refrain from playing dangerously close to the edge. They repeatedly made indirect and sometimes even direct calls for strained relations with Georgia’s friendly neighboring country. Even more so, threats like “launching a war” were also heard. And these same people stay mute about real problems concerning the occupied territories. For them, the fact that Ilori Church is in Georgian territory occupied by Russia has never been enough of a reason to voice similar protest.
The issue over which Chorbishop Iakob, after meeting with members of the Synod, was intent on mobilizing the congregation and spilling blood was, in fact, quickly resolved. It was resolved in the same way that issue has always been resolved – during a single amicable meeting between the presidents of Georgia and Azerbaijan. What religious servants and politicians who speak and act in unison with them called the “invasion” of Azerbaijan into the territory of Georgia was not unprecedented. It has happened time and again during the past decade. And each time it has occurred, the two sides have succeeded in reaching agreement.
Even though the Orthodox Church knew all that perfectly well, it did not shy away from exacerbating the situation. It went right ahead and organized a mass march to the site even after negotiations on achieving a moratorium had been successfully concluded. Today, any citizen of Georgia or foreign tourist can move freely across the territory of the Davit Gareji complex.
The fuss about Davit Gareji continued in parallel with another action on 17 May. On that day, many countries around the world marked the International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia. To commemorate that day in Tbilisi, Georgian defenders of Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender (LGBT) rights assembled in front of the Concert Hall. Flying colored flags and carrying assorted banners, the participants gathered together to express solidarity with LGBT people and to protest discrimination against them.
Dozens of LGBT defenders wanted to march to Freedom Square. The disapproval expressed by passers-by proved to be just an overture to what awaited the participants ahead on Rustaveli Avenue. At the Rustaveli underground station, the Union of Orthodox Christian Parents – an organization infamous for its attempts to foil similar and other types of events – attempted to stop the march under the “leadership” of Avtandil Ungiadze and Priest Davit Isakadze. Priest Davit Kvlividze was around too, to harangue participants with the customary hellfire-and-damnation threat of sulfur rains and earthquakes.
Religious servants urged the police to nip the perversion in the bud and stop the march, but to no avail. Their verbal opposition then deteriorated into a fistfight. When tensions reached a peak, the patrol police intervened and detained five people. Three of the five detainees were participants in the demonstration. They and their two provokers were released shortly afterwards. Some viewed the action of the police as merely an ineffective act of the state whereas participants in the march considered it patently unfair.
On 18 May, another demonstration was staged to protest the violence of the previous day. Among participants in that second rally were Ambassadors of the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and France. Their presence during the demonstration did not deter several aggressive opponents from trying to attack participants once the demonstration ended. Some of the attackers who tried to flee were detained by the police while one who got away was sheltered by Father Elizbar in Kashveti Church. Overall, police did a better job on 18 May than they had the day before to ensure a peaceful demonstration.
The reaction of passers-by left no question that homophobic and xenophobic sentiments are still strong in Georgia. Participants in the LGBT demonstration managed anyway to walk peacefully through a section of the road before they were blocked by the organized group of Orthodox Christians.
After the incident, the Patriarch’s press secretary, Father Mikael Botkoveli, commented: “We never call on anyone for violence… However, a segment of the society, including the Union of Orthodox Christian Parents, believes that the manifestation of their disease by these people is unacceptable. They are not only in deadly sin but that is a disease.”
The Georgian Patriarchate may not explicitedly call for physical violence, but in its sermons it also does not unequivocally denounce it. The Patriarchate generally denies any connection with extremist priests and congregants whenever they attack someone or storm a TV station or beat people gathered outside a university to defend freedom of expression. Yet, shortly after such incidents, the Patriarchate has shown its support by bestowing a decorated pectoral cross and the right to wear a miter. That is how the Patriarch rewarded Father Davit Isakadze after his gang beat people in the centre of Tbilisi. By condoning such violence, the Patriarchate becomes a vicarious participant in violent acts committed in the name of Christian morality. Moral principles are often invoked to justify discrimination against disfavored minority groups. But moral principles are absolutely forgotten when religious servants prohibit poor people from selling church candles without a license from the Patriarchate.
It is crystal clear that the Church’s restraint in reining in the aggression of its adherents serves the purpose of silencing those whom it considers undesirable. For its part, the state finds it difficult to oppose a popular religious institution openly while by distancing itself from extremist groups it gets a free hand to punish offenders.
The punishment of offenders during earlier similar events resulted in a decrease in the number of crimes committed on religious grounds, as confirmed by the Public Defender’s annual reports. Prevention of violence by the state is the only effective way to curb religious extremism. The fight against homophobia and xenophobia will be successful when and if the state ensures that LGBT groups can live openly in an environment free of the constant threat of violence.
This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 102, published 28 May 2012.