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In Georgia, a Little Extra in the Collection Plate

Soon the Orthodox Church will not be the only faith group getting funds from the government.

by Nino Chimakadze 26 March 2014

For more than a decade, the Georgian government has given annual payments totaling more than $100 million to the country’s Orthodox Church, which counts nearly 85 percent of the population as followers.


The subsidies have been criticized by civil libertarians and secular groups as inappropriate and by other religious groups as unfair, but most people accept them.


Ownership of Tbilisi's Norashen church, which dates to the 1460s, is disputed between the Georgian Orthodox and the Armenian Apostolic churches. It sits idle, with an ominous crack running down its front.


But beginning this year, other denominations will share in the largess in what the government says is an effort to make up for past repression.


The Armenian Apostolic Church in Georgia, Muslim groups, the Catholic Church, and Jewish groups will receive a total of 4.5 million lari ($2.6 million) annually, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili announced in late January. The Orthodox Church will continue to receive much higher subsidies – 25 million lari in the coming year.


“We want to respond to the continuing speculation. We hear in the media that conflicts on religious grounds have become frequent. I want to state unequivocally that this is not true,” Garibashvili said. Rather, he said, relations among faiths are getting better, and the government treats “various religious groups with equal respect.”


The four religious groups are to be financed from the state budget “because these religions were repressed during Soviet times,” Garibashvili said.


Garibashvili’s comments notwithstanding, the Orthodox Church’s pre-eminence in Georgia has sometimes caused friction among faith groups. For instance, the church holds buildings that used to belong to the Catholic and Armenian Apostolic churches as well as several former mosques. Most are idle and in disrepair but the Orthodox authorities have not given them up.


In addition, plans to rehabilitate a crumbling mosque and build a new one in 2012 were roundly criticized by the church, and the construction of some Muslim prayer houses has been disrupted in Georgian villages, with the tacit backing of Tbilisi.


Although it has its defenders, the decision to subsidize other religious groups has been met with suspicion, criticism, and bewilderment, even among some of the organizations slated to receive the funds.


Critics question how the four additional faiths were chosen and whether taxpayers should have their money funneled to religious groups at all.


Some also wonder about the government’s motives in announcing the subsidies, which leave out groups that suffered alongside the Orthodox, Muslims, Catholics, Armenian Apostolics, and Jews during the Soviet era.  


“It is important that decisions concerning religious minorities are made as a result of consultation with a wide range of religious groups,” Ombudsman Ucha Nanuashvili said in a statement. “The government’s decision, however, was apparently made after consulting with only a small number of religious groups.”


Beka Mindiashvili, who specializes in religious tolerance issues at the ombudsman’s office, said the government appeared to leave the experts out of the loop on this decision.


The government usually spurns the ombudsman’s religion council when it offers to work with the authorities on religious issues, said Mindiashvili, who opposes government support of religions in general.


“I think this is an attempt to gain more influence on big religious organizations and especially Muslim communities, with whom the government had several problems last year,” rather than to right past wrongs, Mindiashvili said.


But Garibashvili said his government’s motives were more high-minded.


“This doesn’t mean that we want to control these institutions. It’s just a show of good will to find compensation for them,” he told Imedi TV in February.


If that’s true, “then why they don’t give us back our mosques in Samtskhe-Javakheti and Adjara, which we asked them to do several times?” said Tariel Nakaidze, head of the Georgian Muslims Union. “These buildings now are officially registered as libraries but in reality they’ve turned into garbage dumps and cowsheds.”


Many Muslims in Georgia are wary of government moves for reasons that predate the mosque controversies. In 2011, the previous government created an organization called the Administration of Muslims of Georgia, which some Muslims saw as a maneuver to control their community, especially as it contains Christians and members seen as government loyalists. Nakaidze is also among those who believe that people should be free to give to religions according to their conscience and not be compelled to do so by the tax man.


Muslims are not the only ones who are suspicious.


“They call it reparations for damages but who calculated the damages? We want more details and we’re waiting to learn more about this issue and then decide what to do,” said Akaki Chelidze, a leader of the Catholic Church in Georgia. “We also want to be sure that if we get this funding, it won’t be a kind of substitute for five old Catholic churches that historically belong to us.”


Such concerns are misplaced, according to Keti Tsikhelashvili, the first deputy minister for reconciliation and civic equality. She said the purpose of the subsidies is nothing more than what is spelled out in the resolution that authorized it, which reads:


“The funding, to be disbursed on a monthly basis, can be used for construction or renovation of religious facilities, educational and publishing activities, religious ceremonies and rituals, the purchase of property and any other activities in accordance with Georgian legislation.”


“I think this is a very positive step and we had very encouraging responses from our Western partners. I hope these religious organizations will also have the same reaction,” Tsikhelashvili said.


At least one religious organization has embraced the idea.


Levon Isakhanyan, head of the Armenian Apostolic Church’s legal department, sees the more widespread funding as an important step toward democracy and equality in Georgia, he said via a Facebook interview.


“Before this decision only the Georgian Orthodox Church could get some kind of partial compensation from the state for moral and material damage that took place during Soviet times,” which is among the reasons the government has given for funding the church since 2002.


But it “was not the only religious organization objectively entitled to get compensation, as many other religious organizations, including the Armenian diocese, had significant losses during the Soviet era,” he wrote.


In a later interview, Isakhanyan said Armenian church officials are still trying to count how many believers were killed or exiled during the Soviet period, but he said the organization holds only two of the 26 churches it had in Tbilisi at the beginning of the 20th century.


Representatives of religious institutions not included on the list have raised strong objections.


“Is the state’s discriminatory attitude toward churches and religious organizations correct? What is the state paying for by financing churches and religious organizations?” Hans-Joachim Kiderlen, the bishop of Georgia’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, asked in an annual speech in late January. “Is it atonement for sins (that is, to compensate for damage inflicted during Soviet period) or a way of repaying the [groups’] contributions to education and social services for citizens? Maybe it’s a kind of ‘bribe’ so that churches and religious organizations refrain from undesirable interference in state affairs? Since the issue concerns taxes, which are paid by the public at large, how will a social consensus be reached? I believe that these issues have not yet been thoroughly considered and answered.”


Rusudan Gotsiridze, the bishop of the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia, said the choice of only four institutions reflects a deeply held view in Georgia about “traditional and nontraditional” religions. She noted that the Evangelical Lutherans had suffered more losses than any other faith in Soviet times, having all of their church property confiscated and more than 80 percent of their priests and followers exiled or killed.  


By leaving many voices out of the consultations on the subsidies, she said the government had acted like a high-handed parent who knows what’s best.


Tsikhelashvili said the government is open to discussing the matter and other groups could later be added to the list.


That would be a step in the wrong direction, according to some members of the political opposition and civic groups.


Sergo Ratiani, a member of parliament from the former governing United National Movement and deputy chairman of parliament's education, science, and culture committee, said the state should not fund religious institutions in general, but instead offer people the option of adding something extra for particular groups when paying their taxes. 


Ratiani also warned that a new state agency on religious issues, created alongside the new subsidies, would end up being a means to control faith groups, likening it to Stalin-era practices.


The Tolerance and Diversity Institute, which focuses on the rights of religious minorities, also suggests the government use the optional tax system instead of direct subsidies.


“Thus the role of government in financing religious organizations is minimized and the interest of all taxpayers to finance their religious organizations, atheist or other groups, if they wish to do so, is respected,” the group said in a statement.


Tsikhelashvili said funding options are up for discussion but that an optional tax would probably not get many takers in Georgia.


TDI director Eka Chitanava said the new subsidies cannot plausibly be considered compensation for damages, as those damages have not been calculated nor has the government specified a time frame during which institutions would receive the payments.


Another question is whether today’s religious groups are the legal successors of Soviet-era churches, she said.


The new subsidies amount to direct state funding of religious groups, “which is far from a secular and democratic state concept,” Chitanava said.


Tsikhelashvili acknowledged that the subsidies are not direct reparations and that calculating damages is nearly impossible.


“This is just a symbolic gesture of respect and partial reparation of moral damages they experienced in the Soviet past,” she said.


But Chitanava said the best moral recompense would be the return of buildings confiscated from minority religious groups that now belong to the Orthodox Church.

Nino Chimakadze is a reporter for Tskheli Shokoladi (Hot Chocolate) magazine in Tbilisi. Photos by Iago Kurashvili.

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