Thirty-seven-year-old Rusudan Gotsiridze is not a man with a beard, and never wears a skufia, a traditional Christian vestment. Nonetheless, she is an ordained bishop living in Georgia, a country where, for nearly 1,700 years, the priesthood was an exclusively male domain.
“I was once asked if my husband wears a beard because I cannot grow one,” Gotsiridze recounted with a laugh. “Even some friends poke fun at me by calling me ‘Father.’”
Most Georgians are Orthodox Christians, and the Georgian Orthodox Church remains a male-dominated institution. Gotsiridze is a minority within a minority -- a woman holding a leadership position in the Georgian Evangelical Baptist Church, a relatively small denomination in Georgia with about 4,000 members. Adherents of reformed Protestant doctrine, Evangelical Baptists have been present in Georgia since the 1860s, when a missionary arrived from Germany and made contact with the Molokans, ethnic Russian dissenters from the Russian Orthodox Church.
About 20 years ago, the Evangelical Baptist church, like other Christian denominations outside of Georgia, began ordaining women. Not everyone within Georgia’s small Baptist community was happy about the innovation. As Gotsiridze relates: “[t]he maximum women were allowed to do in church was to pray and sing hymns.” The issue ultimately led to a schism.
For Gotsiridze, the granddaughter of an Evangelical Baptist pastor, the thought of becoming a minister was a natural one. Georgia’s strong cultural emphasis on following in family traditions facilitated the move, she said. “I was easily accepted by most of my parish because my grandfather led the church for many years,” recounted Gotsiridze, who holds a master’s degree in Christian theology and also works as a gender and minority issues expert at Tbilisi’s International Center on Conflict Negotiation. “I grew up within the community, was the granddaughter of a pastor and this made it easier because, in Georgia, family and clan traditions are strong.”
Outside the Evangelical Baptist community, many Georgians have a hard time digesting the idea of a woman in bishop’s vestments. “I was at this party and friends were pushing me to have a drink,” Gotsiridze said. “I refused because I had to drive home and the police could pull me over on the way back. My friends told me simply to tell the police that I am a bishop, but then my daughter . . . went, ‘Mom, the police will think that we are all high.’”
Keeping on good terms with the powers that be also applies to the Georgian Orthodox Church. Gotsiridze describes her church’s ties with the Georgian Orthodox Church as “your typical relationship between the mainstream and the marginalized.”
“At a high level, the relationship is good and civil between the leaderships, and even better on the lower level, in ties between neighbors.” The trouble comes with less formalized or less personal interactions, she continued -- schoolteachers quizzing Baptist students about why they are not Georgian Orthodox, for instance, or various forms of public taunting and hate speech.
How the Georgian Orthodox Church interacts with religious minorities long has been a sensitive topic. Georgian Orthodoxy experienced a powerful comeback after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. Today, for many Georgians, the Orthodox Church and Patriarch Ilia II are all but indistinguishable from Georgia’s national identity.
Last July, amendments to Georgia’s civil code enabled religious minorities to be registered as official religious groups. Many Orthodox believers perceived the change as a challenge to the Orthodox Church’s preeminence. (Previously, religious minorities had held a legal status equivalent to a non-governmental organization). Hundreds of citizens demonstrated in the capital Tbilisi against the amendments. Amid the outcry, derogatory claims and comments about the Georgian Evangelical Baptist Church’s female bishop also appeared online. “Unfortunately, whenever there is a serious debate about religious topics, our society tends to become very sexist,” Gotsiridze said. “I have come across discussions about me on the Internet that I wish I had not seen.”
Gotsiridze welcomed the changes that the amendments brought, but complains that a discriminatory environment still persists. Under a 2002 constitutional agreement with the state, the Georgian Orthodox Church enjoys exclusive tax exemptions, and receives annual government subsidies worth millions of dollars. That means that, like all taxpayers in Georgia, members of religious minority groups help subsidize the Georgian Orthodox Church.
“We are paying tax money to support them and what we often get in response is bashing,” she commented.
Like Gotsiridze, the international community has generally welcomed the changes to the civil code; monitors from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe asserted that “it reaffirms the respect given by Georgia for the right of freedom of religion and principle of inter religious tolerance.”
Yet sectarian tolerance can often prove a work in progress. Gotsiridze, who says she has never faced serious abusive behavior or discrimination, has learned to take smaller inappropriate comments with a sense of humor.
“Once, this cab driver honestly felt sorry for me when he found out I was a Baptist,” she recalled with a smile. “He looked at me commiseratively and asked ‘Is at least your husband Orthodox?’”
Giorgi Lomsadze is a journalist based in Tbilisi. He is a frequent contributor to Eurasianet's Tamada Tales blog.