This article was updated on 4/07/09 to correct the Chamber of Control's place in the government hierarchy.
A $15-million government "grant" to the Georgian Orthodox Patriarchate is raising concerns about church-state relations in Georgia. The Georgian constitution calls for a clear separation between church and state, but critics believe that the financial relationship between President Mikheil Saakashvili's administration and the Georgian Orthodox Church suggests that the letter of the law is not being followed.
In 2009, the amount of financing the Church received tripled to 25 million lari, or roughly $15 million. The budget increase comes on the heels of another controversial government gift: luxury sports utility vehicles for each of the church's 10 archbishops. No other religion in Georgia receives state funding, or gifts from the government. Representatives of the Patriarchate state that both the budget increase and the cars are benign examples of government's goodwill and respect -- not a sign that Georgian Orthodoxy, the faith of the vast majority of the country's 4.4 million residents, serves as a de facto state religion.
"It is very clearly written in the constitution that the church and the state are absolutely independent. . . . We did not want to be somehow the state religion. . . . We are against that," church spokesperson Father Davit Sharashenidze said.
A representative of the Patriarchate's accounting department told EurasiaNet that it requested the threefold increase in funds to cover new social welfare projects, and remodeling expenses in educational institutions. The cars, the accountants said, were a token of esteem toward Patriarch Ilia II on the 30th anniversary of his 1977 enthronement; the Patriarchate notes that the government stipulated that the cars were for Church use only, and that no archbishop received permission to either sell, or to otherwise profit from the vehicles.
But critics maintain that the Patriarchy has inextricably tied itself to the government through its dependency on government financing and "presents." Apart from donations and the sale of religious paraphernalia, the Church has no other source of income. The threefold increase in financing for 2009, coming on the heels of Georgia's unsuccessful war against Russia, "is like a gesture to the Church . . . from the president that 'I am with you and you should be with me,'" said Beka Mindiashvili, a religion monitor at the Georgian Public Defender's Office and an outspoken church critic. "This money speaks that [President Mikheil Saakashvili] is counting on [the Patriarch's support] during difficult times."
Citing a lack of knowledge about the party's policy, a spokesperson for the governing United National Movement declined to comment on the relationship between the government and the church. The relationship, however, has the appearance of being extensive. In recent days, senior United National Movement members have appeared on television with the patriarch to appeal for calm in the upcoming April 9 opposition protests. Ilia II has also served as an apparent unofficial envoy to Moscow following the severance of diplomatic ties with Russia.
Religious scholar Levan Abashidze argues that by taking on such a public role while accepting state funds and other benefits, the Church is "giving up its freedom."
"[O]ne of the main ideas is the church has moral authority. You cannot have moral authority if you are always with the government," Abashidze said.
Mindiashvili, who studied at the Georgian Theological Academy, notes that the practice of giving presents to the church "to receive the authority of the church" goes beyond the government. Businesspeople are known to sponsor new churches or church repairs; parish priests rely on donations or free services from churchgoers to supplement their salaries.
The government's return of church property confiscated while Georgia was part of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union has sparked further criticism.
Guram Chakhvadze, deputy chairman of the parliamentary Budget and Finance Committee and a member of the opposition Christian-Democrats faction, told EurasiaNet that the property transfers to date have been made on an ad hoc basis. Chakhvadze stressed, however, that only property with historic ties to the church -- and under current government ownership -- is being transferred.
EurasiaNet was not able to receive a list of property the government has already returned to the church. Patriarchate representatives could not give an immediate response about the total amount of property received since the 2002 concordat that defined the church's constitutional relationship with the government.
Tax benefits are another aspect of the church's special status. Patriarchate accountants state that the church does not pay tax on either salaries or property or the sale of religious paraphernalia. Other religions do not qualify automatically for the same benefits. Registration as either a union or a foundation is required to receive tax benefits. Some have taken the step, but, others, like the Armenian Apostolic Church, have declined.
Both Father Sharshenidze and Parliamentary Budget and Finance Committee Deputy Chairperson Chakhvadze strongly dismiss suggestions that the government is trying to bribe the church with benefits and financing. Chakhvadze pointed to the fact that money given to the church is termed a "grant" as an indication of how seriously the government takes the separation dictated by the constitution. The funds are often also called a "subsidy."
Father Sharashenidze underlined that the Patriarchate is committed to keeping its financial transactions with the government open and transparent. Patriarchate accountant Lela Lomadze noted that parliament must approve any change in the amount transferred to church projects from the state budget. The church itself petitions the Ministry of Finance for state funds; the ministry must then approve expenditures before submitting the package to parliament as part of the proposed state budget, Lomadze contended.
According to a Patriarchate copy of the budget, a Georgian Orthodox university in the Western region of Ajara is the single largest recipient of church funds this year -- 3.2 million lari or $1.9 million. Juvenile shelters and homes for the elderly will receive over 4.4 million lari or about $2.67 million. Remaining funds will be distributed to church-associated schools, gymnasia, seminaries, academies and institutes around the country. No payouts have been made to individual churches or monasteries unless the institution operates a shelter. Patriarchate accountants underlined that these sums are tentative, and subject to change.
Monitoring how the funds are spent is cause for further controversy. While critic Mindiashvili maintains that the transactions are kept under wraps, the Patriarchate argues that every tetri, present and square meter of land the church receives from the state is registered and monitored by the Ministry of Finance.
A spokesperson for the government's Chamber of Control, which monitors state budget outlays, told EurasiaNet, however, that the law did not allow the ministry to exercise such control.
Parliamentary Budget and Finance Committee Deputy Chairperson Chakhvadze echoed that assessment. "The Georgian church is excluded from that because we give a subsidy and the church itself decides how to use the money," he said.
According to the Patriarchate's spokesperson Father Sharashenidze, those funds are taken in good faith. The church, he said, will accept whatever it is offered as a sign of respect for the role it has played in holding the country together throughout Georgia's turbulent history.
Molly Corso is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.