Next week Georgia holds parliamentary elections. The pre-election period is the perfect time for politicians to demonstrate their allegiance to the Orthodox Church to gain political legitimacy with the public.

Georgia’s ruling party Georgian Dream “performed marvels during these [last] four years” said former prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili in the run-up to the vote on 8 October. “We were heading towards the abyss… if you don’t believe me, listen to the Patriarch!”

In a country where 83% of citizens identify as Orthodox Christians, the Orthodox Church has considerable political clout. Georgians often boast of the country’s long history of Christianity, which became the state religion of the Georgian Kingdom of Kartli in fourth century AD.

These days, a constitutional agreement acknowledges the church’s “special role in the history of Georgia”. The relationship may be less formal, but it’s no less important.

In Georgia, a popular politician is a pious politician. With elections looming, many are queuing up to kiss the patriarch’s ring

Gallup research from 2015 shows that Georgia is the fourth the most religious country in the world. Ninety percent of Georgians say that religion is rather or very important in their daily lives, though just 18% of the population say that they attend religious services once or more a week.

The exalted role of the church in Georgian society is even more important given rising mistrust of politicians and the ruling party. A NDI/CRRC survey this year found that 74% of respondents questioned would not vote for a political party which was critical of the Georgian Orthodox Church.

In Georgia, a popular politician is a pious politician. With elections looming, many are queuing up to kiss the patriarch’s ring.

The politics of the pulpit

Using the Orthodox Church as a source of political legitimacy is nothing new in post-Soviet Georgia. Every government since president Eduard Shevardnadze’s tenure (1995-2003) has tried to manipulate the Georgian public’s trust using the church. Thanks to an informal deal between the state and the patriarchate, the Georgian Orthodox Church has gained ideological, legal and finally political recognition. During the tenure of Mikheil Saakashvili (2004-2013), it became financially powerful before breaking the deal with the government by supporting its political opposition.

If before 2012, the pattern of state financial support to the Georgian Orthodox Church fluctuated according to important political events, since 2012 the state and church have developed more harmonious relations. Tactics have also changed. Unlike in 2012, the church isn’t openly supporting a particular political party. Today’s politics of piety are more behind closed doors, to influence specific policy issues

That year, the support of the Orthodox Church proved to be decisive for the Georgian Dream coalition, then in opposition. When the Holy Synod announced a resolution in 2012 obliging the clergy to uphold political neutrality, church representatives and supporters of Georgian Dream rebelled, holding a protest rally. If necessary, they claimed, they would “take off their cassocks” in search of compromise.

Voters heard plenty of politics from the pulpit, and the synod never strictly enforced its ruling. After Georgian Dream’s victory in parliamentary elections, a representative of the patriarchate, Deacon Tariel Sikinchilashvili, raised Georgian Dream’s party flag at a monastery fence and hailed Ivanishvili’s victory as God’s miracle.

The new government knew who to thank. The church’s influence on political processes increased, as seen in legislative changes and the impunity of Orthodox clergy. Religious minorities were particularly concerned.

The most recent development concerns same-sex marriage. This year, Georgian Dream proposed a draft constitutional amendment to define marriage as the union of a man and a woman. As same-sex couples cannot actually marry under Georgia’s Civil Code, the initiative seems rather ludicrous. Instead, it appears to be a government strategy to capitalise on public discussions of LGBT rights by attracting conservative voters.

Using the Orthodox Church as a source of political legitimacy is nothing new in post-Soviet Georgia

This isn’t the first attempt. In 2014, then prime minister Irakli Gharibashvilihinted at banning same-sex marriage, even suggesting a constitutional amendment. Orthodox clergy also insisted on legislative changes. In an interview for Asaval-Dasavali, one of the most homophobic and xenophobic publications in Georgia, Dean David Isakadze, a high-ranking clergyman and founder of the radical Union of Orthodox Parents, said: “It would probably be good to have a plebiscite […] on same-sex marriage and LGBT propaganda, which would later pass into law.”

Georgia’s government also adopted a law on elimination of all forms of discrimination in May 2014 after a series of parliamentary debates held to appease the church. This was also a result of an EU-Georgia visa liberalisation agreement, in which Georgia agreed to redouble its efforts to eliminate various forms of discrimination. Nevertheless, Orthodox clerics continued their campaign by calling for restrictions on LGBTQI expression, and discontent towards the government grew.

Bidzina Ivanishvili and Georgian Orthodox patriarch Ilia II at a meeting in 2013. Image still via Info9 TV / YouTube. Some rights reserved.So, this year’s call to ban same-sex marriage is the culmination of earlier attempts. Members of the LGBTQI community and human rights defenders argue that the initiative was solely intended to gain “traditional” and pro-Russian votes while striking a chord with the Orthodox Church. Same-sex marriage has never before been a matter for popular political discussion in Georgia. Neither has the physical safety of LGBTQI people — and they’re still under threat.

In April 2016, the patriarchate made an official statement, together with five other religious organisations, stating that a constitutional amendment on marriage was necessary. It was, they added, in the interest of the absolute majority of Georgian citizens regardless of their ethnic or religious group. The statement even claimed “sexual minorities would also benefit, as eventually [thanks to the law], the risk of violence against them would decrease.”

Some 80 MPs signed and supported the initiative. Opposition parties, such as the United National Movement and Republican Party, opposed it. After two months, it was still unclear whether the bill would be put to vote. Any constitutional amendment requires at least 113 votes from MPs and they should be present in the chamber.

Georgian Dream member and first vice-speaker of the parliament Manana Kobakhidze said at a plenary parliamentary session in May that it was necessary to make changes to the Constitution and if it was not achieved through the support of MPs, the issue might be decided by referendum.

The government and Orthodox Church took the next step by mobilising interest groups and raising the issue of holding a referendum on defining marriage as union of a man and a woman. Georgia’s Central Election Commission (CEC) received requests from three different initiative groups. In July, the CEC approved a question on referendum signed by 224,000 supporters of an initiative group led by former deputy minister of diaspora issues Sandro Bregadze. The proposed question asked voters: “Do you agree or disagree that marriage should be defined as a union of a man and a woman for the purpose of creating a family?”

Civil society mobilised, requesting that president Giorgi Margvelashvili oppose the referendum. The president finally blocked the initiative.

But the story doesn’t end there. Prime minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili said in August that, after the elections, the government still would make the amendments, defining marriage in the constitution as the union of man and woman.

New crusades

Since his rise to power Bidzina Ivanishvili, informal leader of the country, has made bold statements about the importance of the protection of “sexual minorities”. Nevertheless, many Georgians remember one date with particular disgust — one which has come to symbolise religiously-motivated violence against peaceful people.

On 17 May 2013, a small-scale demonstration to mark the international day against homophobia and transphobia (IDAHO) was violently dispersed by Orthodox priests and laypeople in Georgia’s capital of Tbilisi. The timing couldn’t have been worse — the attack happened just two days after Ivanishvili’s positive statements. Persecution of LGBT people continued for months. Hundreds of witnesses were questioned by law enforcement bodies and the case was taken to the Tbilisi City Court. But the priests and three supporters who allegedly committed violence were acquitted two years later.

Apart from gaining the guarantee of impunity, the Orthodox Church then went on to symbolically occupy Georgia’s public space. The church later pronounced this most traumatic day for LGBT people as a nationwide “Day of the Family”. Ever since, the government has been unable to guarantee the safety of people who publicly observe the international day against homophobia.

The patriarchate did not take the rising criticism well. In November 2013, it backed a proposed law against insulting religious feelings, supported by then-deputy interior minister Levan Izoria. However, most members of Georgia’s Council of Religions at the Tolerance Centre under the auspices of Georgia’s Public Defender did not support the bill. They issued a statement against the proposed law, signed by 20 religious entities. Following criticism by civil society organisations, it was dropped.

Homophobic protesters try to attack a bus carrying LGBTQI activists after a gay pride parade in Tbilisi, 2013. Among their number are several Orthodox priests. (c) Shakh Aivazov / AP / Press Association Images. All rights reserved.The church struck back with a new draft law imposing fines for insulting religious feelings in February 2016. However the law’s initiator, parliamentarian Ioseb Jachvliani from Georgian Dream, withdrew the proposed law on 15 February, claiming in a letter to parliament that it “needed to be refined”.

Despite the strong opposition of Orthodox clerics, the anti-discrimination law was eventually adopted. However, prior to passing the bill, non-governmental and a number of religious minority organisations stated that the final draft law was “essentially a step backwards” from the previous version that the ministry of justice had developed.

The government interpreted the law from the point of view of the Georgian Orthodox Church, reflecting religious discourse in the document. Most worryingly, the draft stipulated that “no provision of the law can be construed to contradict the constitutional agreement between the state and the Orthodox Church of Georgia”.

It wasn’t enough. On the same day when the bill was passed, the patriarchate stated that the law still “was not acceptable to the church” and they could not agree with the final version. Two years since the adoption of the law, it has hardly been put into practice.

While the government tried to protect the Georgian Orthodox Church from existing (and potential) criticism and squash public debates, religious minority communities, especially Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses, continued to face persecution and discrimination on religious grounds. Since 2012, seven instances of Islamophobia and gross violation of Muslims’ rights took place in different regions of Georgia. The government not only was unable to protect the rights of its citizens, but representatives of law enforcement bodies allegedly verbally and physically abused Muslims. None of these cases have been fully investigated and alleged perpetrators have not been punished.

Moreover, due to the influence of Georgian Orthodox Church, usually regional municipalities either don’t issue permits for constructing houses of worship for non-Orthodox communities, or suspend them illegally.

Over the past two years, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Catholics encountered a series of obstacles from local municipality councils. Jehovah’s Witnesses only got a permit after going to court, while Georgian Catholics have not yet been able to construct a church in Rustavi, an industrial city near Tbilisi, since 2013.

Hearts, minds and souls

The church has acquired control over education. Georgia’s Law on General Education protects the principle of religious neutrality, and indoctrination and proselytism are forbidden at public schools.

But according to various local and international reports, this law is systematically violated. Many public schools resemble shrines where religious symbols are displayed in classrooms, the Orthodox clergy preach during school hours, and minorities and atheist students experience discrimination.

In 2015, Georgia’s ministry of education and science declared that it intended to introduce a new subject for third and fourth grade students at public schools “Society and Me”. Classes would focus on civic awareness, democracy, tolerance, equality and cultural diversity. The patriarchate severely criticised the programme, citing “liberal values” and “gender equality” as threats to Georgia’s traditions and religious mindset.

Georgia’s clergy is bargaining with the state. They call this mass financial support “compensation for the damages” inflicted on the church during the Soviet period

In September 2015, Levan Vasadze, a Georgian businessman and a founder of the Demographic Development Fund, widely known for his homophobic rhetoric and allegiance to the church, called the new school subject “catastrophic” in an interview with TV channel Maestro. Vasadze admitted that he thoroughly went over the content and provided consultations to the ministry to alter the text. Tamar Sanikidze, minister of education at the time, did not deny Vasadze’s words. When asked whether she was summoned to the patriarchate, Sanikidze responded: “I do not want to get involved in this discussion […] I think we should be more careful while talking about the Patriarch.”

This year, the education minister signed off on “Society and Me” and “Our Georgia”. However, many topics from the previous version have been omitted: the words “minority” and “gender”, the whole chapter “What I believe and have faith in”, and topics like “Why and how should I respect other people despite their different religious creed?” and “Why it is not allowed to commit violence in the name of faith?”

When piety pays off

Theologian Beka Mindiashvili, one of the founders of Tolerance and Diversity Institute (TDI), says that there is always an economic interest behind the patriarchate’s religious requests to the Georgian government. In other words, the church is bargaining with the state.

This relationship becomes evident when looking at the government’s significant financial support for the church. According to a study on state funding of religious organisations in 2014-2015 conducted by the Tolerance and Diversity Institute (TDI) and Human Rights Education and Monitoring Centre (EMC), there has been a significant increase in the funding and transfer of property by the government to the Georgian Orthodox Church.

“Georgians, together towards God” Tbilisi, 2012. CC: Tony Bowden / Flickr. Some rights reserved.In 2014, the state allocated more than 32m Georgian lari (£10.5m) from the budget to the Orthodox Church, including annual subsidy and local transfers from 40 regional and ten Tbilisi district municipalities. In 2015, the state allocated more than 31m lari (£10.1m), including transfers by 48 regional and 10 Tbilisi district municipalities. In 2012, the government’s reserve fund transferred 969,000 lari (£318,000) to the church; in 2015 the sum amounted to 1,590,000 lari (£522,000).

There has also been an increase in the number and size of property lots and buildings belonging to the church. All told, the state and municipalities transferred 66 pieces of real estate to the Georgian Orthodox Church between 2014 and 2015. This amounted to over 65,000 sqm of real estate during the same period.

Funds and property transferred to the church are mostly used for religious purposes, violating the constitutional principle of religious neutrality. The state doesn’t check how the money is spent — standards of accountability are not observed.

The сhurch officially justifies the existing practice by the Constitutional Agreement signed between the state and the patriarchate in 2002 and calls the financial support “compensation for the damages” inflicted on the church during the Soviet period. However, these damages were never calculated by the government and there is defined no time-frame during which these damages should be compensated for.

“When the ruling party has an incoherent and weak ideological platform, the church succeeds in occupying political and public space. Moreover, it pervades the state institutional domains (for instance, educational system, legislative process) and cements its power,” says Tamta Mikeladze, a lawyer at Human Rights Education and Monitoring Centre (EMC).

Today, the state does not need a particular excuse to demonstrate its allegiance to the church, but it does so on a regular basis, often at the expense of targeted non-Orthodox and other minority groups. The biggest loser, of course, is Georgia’s young democracy.

Want to know more about the crossover of religion and politics in the post-Soviet space? Read Badma Biurchiev’s investigation into how “traditional” and “non-traditional” Muslims are consolidating against the Russian state in the North Caucasus.

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