3. Mai 2019

What about the patriarch? Church, society & sexual minority rights in Georgia

The Georgian clergy is bound to play a crucial role in the country’s European integration process. Back in 2013, violent protests against an LGBTIQ* rights rally in Tbilisi revealed the destructive approach of religious groups towards civil liberties. With regard to Tbilisi’s first queer pride this June, constructive dialogue seems inevitable in order to move Georgia’s society forward.

A Comment by Simon Schultz


“Georgia”, as the renowned author Zurab Karumidze stated during our #GEOEUvalues workshop in Tbilisi, “has been part of Europe before Europe has even been there.” He underlines the closeness of his country to ancient Greek and Roman culture, where he locates the origin of our shared European values. This is but one voice in the discussion on the definition of European values in Georgian civil society, which focuses on history and alliances.

Another perspective on European values in Georgia can be gained by looking at society itself, especially at the genesis and the behavior of its main players. One of the biggest and most trusted players in Georgian society is the Georgian Orthodox Church (GOC). Being a state-funded clerical institution that promotes a very specific type of religious nationalism uniting “Georgianness” and orthodoxy, it plays a very own role in the creation of today’s Georgia (although this role is different from what it seems at first glance). Based on historical insights, this blog article presents ideas on how to deal with the Georgian Orthodox Church in the context of liberal democratisation.


A modern history of the Georgian Orthodox Church

The GOC’s modern history began in 1917, when it became independent from the Russian Orthodox Church. Interestingly, the autocephalous movement supported secular nationalism that led to the first Georgian constitution of 1921, one of the most progressive constitutions at the time guaranteeing the separation of state and church on a political and economic level.

After Georgia was invaded by the Red Army in 1921 and became part of the Soviet Union, the GOC actively opposed the new communist rule. Only in the 1930s and 40s, it was infiltrated by Stalin’s regime. Patriarch Ilia II came to power in 1977 and has lead the Church ever since. The importance of the Church declined during the last decades of Soviet rule; scholars argue that the now prevalent religious nationalism emerged during that time.

When the Soviet Union fell apart and the Communist Party of Georgia left a vacuum in the ideological landscape, the formerly marginalised Church was a perfect candidate to fill this void. Looking for a source of legitimisation after getting into power, president Eduard Shevardnadze eventually found his way to religion and got baptised by Ilia II personally. Affirming Shevardnadze’s claim to power, the patriarch stated publicly: “The whole of Georgia is nervous. So, as the spiritual father of Georgia and personally your spiritual father, I have the right to give benediction to you to announce that you are the head of Georgia”.


Establishing religious nationalism

In the 1990s and early 2000s, times of economic hardship and insecurity in Georgia, the orthodox belief system provided a stable, consistent set of rules and a moral matrix to judge actions and behavior. Together with a new political narrative of “traditionality” based on an idealisation of the times of David the Builder and Georgia’s Golden Age (far from the reality of medieval Georgia), the Church’s message was arguably pacifying people in trouble and provided emotional support. The lack of stable institutions enabled the Patriarchate to gain huge importance in society, in cultural life and in the economy.

The new millennium saw the GOC enabled to establish itself and religious nationalism as one of the main pillars of Georgian society. Its power was augmented through shifting strategies, transforming from loyal support to one political partner towards a more subtle but non-partisan support of individual political projects. Financial transfers from the state to the Patriarchate are immense, especially for a de jure secular state. Between 2012-2015, these transfers increased by 64 percent.

By now, the GOC is a very important political actor, shaping public opinion and influencing governmental decisions. According to a recent study comparing the role of religion, church, nationalism and chauvinism in European countries, only 44 percent of Georgians believe that religion should be kept separate from governmental policies. Also, the orthodox religion is seen to be a key component of Georgian national identity – 81 percent of the Georgian respondents state that Orthodox belief is necessary in order to truly share Georgian identity.

Most interestingly, according to the study, the level of national chauvinism is the second highest in Europe. The high level of trust in religious institutions reflects the power of the GOC, although there has been a decline during recent years, probably intensified by a poison scandal in 2017.


A violent fight for public space

The Church’s influence on society is rather serious in Georgia. On 17th May 2013, dozens of LGBTIQ* activists organised the second Georgian International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. The group was confronted by more than 20.000 ultra-conservative protesters led by orthodox priests. Breaking through police barriers, these protesters violently chased the LGBTIQ* rights activists. At least 17 were injured. Although the Orthodox Church publicly condemned such violence, it urged the government not to promote LGBTIQ* rights, which they consider a “sin”. None of the priests have been convicted for their actions in the following years.

From an international perspective, with all its efforts to push laws and public opinion in a liberal hence European direction, the government has provided only cursory support for the protection of LGBTIQ* people, making sure to fulfill the international community’s demands without causing too much internal struggle.

Arguably, the government didn’t realise that the angry mob’s intervention during the 2013 LGBTIQ* rights march was a struggle for power, as the incident revealed the conflict between orthodox versus liberal and secular segments of Georgian society. The church saw the threat to dissolve its authority in society, hence the escalation served to demonstrate power and supremacy. Patriarch Ilia II reportedly named the LGBTIQ* pride march “an insult” to Georgian tradition, while framing himself as the beholder and guardian of Georgian identity and the GOC as the highest moral authority.

Although religious protestors assaulted LGBTIQ* activists, the Church is not primarily attacking queers but liberal values in general. The GOC links queer liberation to the development of Georgia as a Western country and believes that the West’s individualism doesn’t have any moral boundaries. Thus, it can be argued that the horrific attack in 2013 was a fight for public space and cultural hegemony in the Georgian society.


Allies or adversaries?

Examples on how to deal with churches as societal actors that are immensely critical of liberal values can be drawn from other countries such as Poland. Thirty years ago, the Polish Roman-Catholic Church (PRCC) became an openly political actor. Although the Solidarność movement that eventually led the Polish revolution in 1989 was formed with the support of the PRCC, the church remained very euro-sceptical, fearing the influence of secularisation and individualism. This attitude changed in November 1997, when the Polish Episcopate visited EU institutions in Brussels.

Realising that the EU was not a threat to the congregation, but rather a guarantor for religious freedom, most bishops changed their opinion and unanimously supported the Polish plans to join the EU. This visit to Brussels became a model for similar invitations, e.g. to the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC), which is an important actor in Serbian society and contributed to the process of Serbian nation building in the post-Yugoslav era.


Informing and engaging skeptical segments of society

Arguably, promoting liberal European values in Georgia can only be done with all relevant institutions and players of civil society on board. Since the GOC is a very important institution, successful democratic progress can only be achieved in collaboration with the GOC, not with their obstruction. The much needed dialogue started with the meeting between former EU Commissioner Štefan Füle and Ilia II in 2014, and with the GOC’s visit to EU and NATO in Brussels in November 2016, where the Church demonstrated its interest in collaborating with the EU. Nevertheless, a positive attitude should not be taken for granted. In the long run, only an ongoing exchange can bring liberal European values and the GOC together.

Moreover, Georgian NGOs need to realise that one way of reaching out to society and thus effectively reaching their goals is to engage with the Church. NGOs like the Human Rights Education and Monitoring Center (EMC) get attacked for their work on women’s rights, labour rights and LGBTIQ* rights, or experience problems with and denial by the GOC. The Church, on the other hand, seems to be open to collaborations with NGOs whose priorities are not in conflict with their interest.

After the above-mentioned EU-NATO visit, the patriarchate issued a statement acknowledging misinformation about the EU. In the same statement, the GOC claims to have an interest in the countries’ development, as long as it is based on traditions. As the Patriarchate wants to be the holder of Georgia’s values and traditions, there might be a way to utilise the tradition of democracy and equality in Georgian history in societal dialogue with the Church. By engaging with the GOC, smaller players can introduce these thoughts into the theological, economical, social and educational apparatus – that is now crucial for a first peaceful Tbilisi Pride as well as for liberal democracy in Georgia in general.



The author would like to thank Sonja Schiffers, Renata Skardžiūtė-Kereselidze, Salome Salome Minesashvili, Frauke Seebass and Pierre Mirel for their input to this article.

The article is published as part of the project Between a Rock and a Hard Place? Georgian, German and French Perspectives on European Values and Euro-Atlantic Integration. The project was funded by the German Federal Foreign Office in the framework of the programme “Expanding Cooperation with Civil Society in the Eastern Partnership Countries and Russia”. #GEOEUvalues #civilsocietycooperation

The Polis Blog serves as a platform at the disposal of Polis180’s members. Published comments express solely the authors’ opinions and shall not be confounded with the opinions of the editors or of Polis180.

Image Source: Jana Sabeth Schultz (via unsplash)

Simon Schultz is a Hamburg based filmmaker and cultural producer. Researching visual narratives in LGBTIQ* history, he graduated from the Universität Hildesheim with a documentary work on black/ latinx dance culture in the US. Coming from queer networks, he currently works on essay films on kinship, drag culture and (un)imagined communities. In 2018, Simon participated in Polis180’s #GEOEUvalues project.


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