More than two weeks on, an investigation into a potential scheme to poison the iconic leader of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Ilia II, is nowhere near its denouement, leaving Georgians entrapped, spellbound, in a tangle of conspiracies straight out of an Umberto Eco novel.
If there is one thing that has become clear throughout the whole debacle is that there is a fierce, ongoing battle to become the 84-year-old patriarch’s heir apparent. The outcome of the battle has far-reaching impact in Georgia, one of the world’s oldest Christian countries, where sectarian and secular matters are deeply intertwined.
But what role the 32-year-old deacon, Giorgi Mamaladze, charged with the attempted murder of a “senior cleric,” has to play in this battle remains unknown.
Prosecutors spent an improbable eight hours on February 27 interrogating Mamaladze, yet, even as Georgians waited for a televised tell-all, emerged to say only that they have more questions than answers.
Mamaladze was caught with cyanide in the Tbilisi airport on February 10 en route “to Germany,” where the 84-year-old patriarch was undergoing gallbladder surgery in Berlin. The government cites an anonymous tipster to explain the charges of attempted murder brought against the deacon.
Within the Church hierarchy, clerics have engaged in unusually public speculation and bickering to come up with their own explanations.
Georgia has dropped a proposed anti-blasphemy bill ardently opposed by freedom-of-speech activists. With a stated goal of protecting the feelings of Christian believers, the bill pitted civil liberties against faith in this passionately Christian nation.
The draft appeared to be causing a split in the ruling Georgian Dream coalition – never desirable in a parliamentary election year. Saying that the bill needs more work, parliamentarian Soso Jachvliani on February 15 withdrew his own proposal, which already had been conditionally approved by parliament’s human rights committee. Parliamentary Speaker Davit Usupashvili announced that the legislature has stopped discussion of the legislation.
The proposal to set fines for religiously insulting words and behavior was criticized for its potential to make the Georgian Orthodox Church, seen by many as the embodiment of Georgia’s national identity, all but immune to criticism. The Church earlier had asked for legal defenses against insults, but now distanced itself from the bill. The Patriarchy, the holy see of the Georgian Orthodox Church, is known for thin-skinned reactions to criticism and to any sort of irreverent take on Christian beliefs.
Some liberal clerics, however, spoke against the bill. One Georgian Orthodox priest in Germany described it as absurd. “Who can define religious feelings? What judge can rule on whether a certain action is insulting to someone’s religion?” Deacon Tamaz Lomidze asked in a recent sermon, PalitraTV reported.
In a first for the Caucasus, a Georgian man has filed a lawsuit for the legalization of same-sex marriages in Georgia, a conservative, predominantly Orthodox Christian country. With his suit, civil-rights lawyer Giorgi Tatishvili disputes the constitutionality of a civil law that defines marriage as a union between man and a woman.
Georgia’s vastly influential Orthodox Church requested on February 7 that Tatishvili be placed under police protection as his safety is at risk. Nearly three years ago, a mob led by priests violently scattered an anti-homophobia rally in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, and the violence damaged the Church’s reputation.
Its governing body, the Patriarchy, distanced itself from the violence then and has now spoken out against what it described as likely attacks against Tatisvhili.
“Although we find his initiative, let alone the passing of a [same-sex marriage] law, condemnable and completely unacceptable, acts of violence are also unacceptable,” the Patriarchy said in a statement. Tatishvili has not responded.
No date been set yet for the Constitutional Court to hear the case, but attitudes toward homosexuality are broadly negative in Georgia and throughout the Caucasus.
Well-known minority-rights activists have not embraced Tatishvili's petition, a case which they worry may result in public hostility toward and further marginalization of Georgia’s LGBT community. “In an environment where LGBT groups are virtually banished from the public space . . .it is all but science fiction to speak about gay marriage and request the Constitutional Court to weigh in on it,” Lasha Kavtaradze, spokesperson for the Human Rights Education and Monitoring Center, commented to EurasiaNet.org.
Georgia has moved ahead with plans to make religious irreverence punishable by law, prompting freedom-of-expression concerns in this observant Orthodox Christian society. The so-called blasphemy bill, now approved at committee-level and headed for the parliamentary floor, bodes ill for groups at odds with the mainstream, critics claim.
In a country where cars, apartments and offices sport cross-emblazoned stickers as a sign of a priest’s blessing, the concern is not idle. According to a 2015 poll conducted by WIN/Gallup International, Georgia ranks among the world’s most religious nations. Many Georgians are hypersensitive to any criticism of the Church, seen as the historical defender of Georgia’s national identity. In 2013, Patriarch Ilia II ranked as the country's most trusted public figure.
Against that backdrop, individuals ranging from writers and artists to minority religions and the LGBT community have encountered a fight at one time or another with those who believe veneration for the Church should take precedence over civil rights.
Some observers charge that the draft law will make the Church all but impervious to critical scrutiny.
With the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, already on tenterhooks for May 17, the International Day of Homophobia and Transphobia [IDAHO], tensions are rising over a media report that police officers allegedly demanded that one hipster Tbilisi cafe hand over the names and contacts of all its “gay, transgender, and lesbian" clients. The Georgian interior ministry denied the café-management’s allegation as “absurd.”
Violetta Kolbaia, manager of the reputedly gay-friendly Gallery Café, wrote on Facebook on May 14, that the establishment had refused to hand over "any such information," Tabula.ge reported. “They told us not to post this [on Facebook] or they’d break the computer over our heads,” Kolbaia claimed.
In subsequent media comments, she alleged that the policemen had said the contacts were needed to create “a list.” It is not clear why the police would need such a list -- if, indeed, it is being compiled.
Some argue that it was likely intended to use against Tbilisi's LGBT community, while others wonder if it was to know whom to protect from possible attacks on May 17.
Last year, an angry mob led by priests overpowered police protecting a small rally marking IDAHO on Tbilisi's central Freedom Square. Amidst the violence, many were wounded.
Mindful of last year's controversy, the interior ministry roundly denied the café-manager’s report. They claimed that no police officers had been sent to her club, Netgazeti .ge reported. Kolbaia stood by her story, though she does not rule out the possibility that the police officers acted arbitrarily.
Georgia has announced plans to extend 4.5 million lari (upwards of $2.5 million) to four religious minorities to compensate for the repression of their religious rights under Soviet rule. The payment, planned as a one-time disbursement, will mark the first time that religions or Christian denominations other than the dominant Georgian Orthodox Church have received state financing and, to some, suggests a step toward shaking up the country's religious pecking order.
The 4.5 million lari will be divided “proportionally” between the Roman Catholic Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church and Muslim and Jewish groups, elaborated State Minister for Reconciliation and Civil Equality Paata Zakareishvili. The government is still working on a concrete formula for the handout, he added.
“The Georgian government has long been compensating the damages to the Georgian Patriarchy and the Orthodox Church, but there were other religious groups that suffered no less,” Zakareishvili said.
The Patriarchy, one of Georgia's key power centers, has welcomed the planned payments, saying that the initiative shows a desire to restore justice.
Zakareishvili claims that the payments will apply to 90 percent of Georgia’s religious faithful, but other religious minorities have expressed disappointment for not being included in the arrangement.
After a forced separation from the mosque it calls home, a minaret in Georgia has taken on a life of its own. Claiming that the ready-to-go-style structure was essentially smuggled in from Turkey, officials in the small, southern town of Chela pulled the minaret down this week and carted it away, leaving local Muslims sizzling with anger.
Police sealed off the town on August 26 when the authorities ran off with the mosque's call-to-prayer tower. Protests against the measure resulted in clashes with police and several arrests. The residents were quickly released, but protests among Georgia's Muslims, who make up the largest religious minority in this predominantly Christian country, continued to swell, spreading concerns of religious confrontation.
Faced with criticism by rights activists, as well as the rallies, central government officials issued assurances that nobody intended to limit Georgian Muslims' right to practice their religion. The minaret, they said, was removed because it had not been properly cleared through customs and was put up without the proper permit.
Members of Chela’s Muslim community, however, alleged that several Georgian Orthodox Church priests and members of a nearby Church parish had pushed officials to take the measure so as to stop the mosque from broadcasting its daily calls to prayer.
When Tea Tsulukiani became Georgia’s justice minister her task seemed tough, but straightforward: Take former corrupt officials to task and build an apolitical, widely trusted institution.
She worked hard, and, finally, made a chilling discovery: Many of Georgia's government-issued personal IDs contain the number 666, which is, of course, the mark of the Beast; a phenomenon of the end times, according to the Bible's Book of Revelation.
Tsulukiani hurried to share her find with the public. “I don’t mean to frighten believers, but tens of thousands of old IDs contain the number six three times in a row,” she said on June 4, Interpress reported. But fear not, she went on. Tsulukiani has vowed to make sure that Georgia's new, electronic ID cards will be free of the Beast and his number.
Many Georgians refused to accept the new, smart ID cards after some Georgian Orthodox groups affirmed that the card could bear the stamp of the Antichrist. (The Georgian Orthodox Church itself, however, denied it.) Of particular concern were personal details, which, the thinking went, might come in handy for the Antichrist whenever he might choose to strike.
Tsulukiani has said that including information beyond name and date of birth would be optional.
President Mikheil Saakashvili’s government had no patience to entertain such -- or, critics might charge, any -- public concerns about the cards. But the new, Georgian-Dream-led cabinet is eager to show that they're listening to voters -- particularly in a presidential election year.
Father Iotam rose to fame as a Georgian Internet meme after being filmed chasing gay-rights activists in Tbilisi with a three-legged stool.
Georgian police on May 23 pressed charges against two priests for participating in a mass disturbance of an anti-homophobia rally in Tbilisi that injured dozens and sparked international censure.
The two priests detained were caught on camera as they participated in the mayhem that erupted on May 17 when a crowd of protesters, including Georgian Orthodox Church priests, broke through a police cordon to disperse a small number of people meeting in a downtown square to mark the International Day against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia .
The clash has sparked a sharp debate over the power of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Georgia's most popular institution, and the degree to which the government is prepared to hold priests to account for violating the law. Arresting priests is not a move easily digested within Georgia's highly religious society.
Iotam Basilaia, the father superior at the Iione-Tornike Eristavi Monastery, and Antimoz Bichanashvili, an arch-priest at Tbilisi's Holy Trinity Cathedral, are charged with defying police orders and preventing citizens’ rights to free assembly. The two men may face a fine or even a prison term. Police did not specify if the clerics were being held in jail.
Georgia has begun thinking of banning abortions after influential Georgian Orthodox Church Patriarch Ilia II pitched the idea in his Easter sermon on May 5.
Many churches may be pro-life, but in this devotedly Christian country, which cherishes the church leader above any other public figure, words from the patriarch can carry as much power as papal bulls once did in Europe.
During his sermon, the patriarch called on the government to stop the “terrible sin” of abortion and “filicide,” aside from a few circumstantial exceptions. He blamed both Bolshevik “atheists” from the past and modern liberal philosophy for the prevalence of abortions.
Georgia tops the South Caucasus for abortions, with 408 performed per 1,000 live births, according to a study by the World Health Organization, the Caucasus Research Resource Centers reported. (By comparison, the European Union rate is 222.)
Georgian government officials, who cannot hold a candle to the patriarch in terms of public support, quickly gave the nod to the church on considering an abortion ban. Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili responded by saying that baby-boosting legislation is in order. He carefully suggested, however, that to improve the country’s bleak demographic situation, the main focus should be on economic incentives rather than abortions.