Thursday, 12 February 2009

“Being religious” is getting out of hand in Georgia

In Armenia, this trend is still more at the level of “showing off”: building ‘private’ churches, references to God and bible… In Georgia, this trend evolved into something much more serious and worrisome, to the dangerously bizarre extent.

Below are selected lines from the EurasiaNet report Georgia: Faith Is The Fashion, As Church Influence Soars:

Nearly two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Georgian Orthodox Church has become one of the most prominent actors in Georgia’s social and political life. […]

The church’s rising influence is also reflected in polls. In 2003, 38.6 percent of 1,000 respondents in a survey conducted for Tbilisi’s International Center on Conflict and Resolution named the patriarchy as Georgia’s most trustworthy institution. By 2008, the number had jumped to 86.6 percent. […]

"Let’s say [it] openly: Today it is unthinkable to ignore a personal request from the patriarch, Ilia II, because his authority is tremendous." […]

Meanwhile, on the streets of Tbilisi, public expressions of faith are becoming ever more commonplace. Pedestrians and drivers alike routinely stop in front of churches -- or within sight of a church -- to cross themselves. Small shops selling icons and religious paraphernalia are multiplying rapidly. A clerk at one such shop in central Tbilisi estimated that some 100-150 customers now visit her store each day.

"To be faithful . . . has become fashionable," concluded sociologist Nijaradze. "It has become the social norm."


Onnik Krikorian said...

The reference to Georgians stopping and crossing themselves when they pass a church being a new fad is not really fair as I remember this from my first visit to Tbilisi in early 2000 as well as on other visits in 2004, 2005 and 2007. Maybe it's increasing, dunno.

However, it is true that the power of the Georgian church is of concern and that it is arguably more powerful than the government when it wants to be. There is an urgent need to reform the law which gives the Georgian church a near total monopoly on religion.

Meanwhile, I wonder if the same won't also happen in Armenia? While people talk of the need to reform draconian religious legislation in Georgia, Armenia is about to introduce its own even if it contradicts CE obligations on religious freedom:

ARMENIA: Two years' imprisonment for organising sharing of faith?


Religious minorities have expressed alarm to Forum 18 News Service at proposed amendments to Armenia's Religion Law and Criminal Code which suddenly began passage through the country's parliament on 5 February. In particular, they are worried about proposed punishments of up to two years' imprisonment for those outside the dominant Armenian Apostolic Church who organise campaigns to spread their faith in public and a proposed five-fold increase in the number of members required to register a religious organisation. "If we don't react this Law will be adopted," Rene Leonian, head of the Evangelical Church of Armenia, told Forum 18 from the capital Yerevan on 9 February. "If it is adopted, it would create an intolerant atmosphere in the religious field."


Members of several religious communities told Forum 18 they had had no warning of the beginning of the parliamentary process. "The first we knew was when we heard this on television last week," Lyova Markaryan of the Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 on 9 February in comments echoed by others. "It's strange that no-one's informed us about this," Fr David Abrahamyan, a Russian Orthodox priest at the Mother of God Church in Yerevan's Kanaker District, told Forum 18 the same day. "These proposed Laws contain violations of all human rights."


The draft Laws were prepared by Parliamentary deputy Armen Ashotyan of the Republican Party, which is the largest parliamentary bloc with nearly half the deputies. Forum 18 was unable to reach Ashotyan on 9 February, as staff at his office in Parliament would not put Forum 18 through to him.


Armenia's Constitution grants the Armenian Apostolic Church an "exclusive mission" in the country's life, while the April 2007 Law on Relations of the Republic of Armenia and the Armenian Church gave it extensive privileges over other faiths.


Onnik Krikorian said...

Incidentally, there's a paper on the power of the Georgian church and democratization by a blogger friend of mine:

The Church and the State Relationship in Georgia


Previously discussed issues certainly gives little ground for remaining calm and serene as the growing tendency to nationalize the Orthodox Church of Georgia still remains strongly rooted in the Georgian politics and more importantly in psyche of the society. This is more important than ever that “Georgia address the legal gaps in church-state relations to further religious freedoms” in order to maintain a safe democratic society.

With this research paper I argue that harmony between church and state is truly possible and history of Georgia proved it. Misusing of those religious values against other religious representatives and in personal political aims is what makes hard for country like Georgia to exceed from transition period into full length democracy. [...]

Religion, church and state relationship issues will always remain crucial in Georgia due to high religious society and therefore politics because politics is nothing but about people. But it’s not the threat, danger lies in another side of it. Looking through Georgia’s past and present, religion nationalism still keeps its hazard and this is what should be avoided.

Meanwhile, I've noticed a few nationalists here opposed to any peace deal with Azerbaijan or normalization of relations with Turkey have started to profess and play up their "Christianity" and adherence to "national" and "religious" values.

Perhaps the most over-the-top example of this was:

In addition to the new RA law I'd suggest we better not be complacent. The trends in this region are just that. They appear in all three republics sooner or later because the local mentality as it pertains to ethnic nationalism (and religious identity is part of that) is pretty much similar.

We need tolerance in this region, but I see less and less of it with each passing day. Less democracy, less respect for human rights, less minority rights, less of a global view and understanding, less tolerance, less alternatives, less of a viable future until all these issues are addressed.

Onnik Krikorian said...

Another interesting paper to read:

Religious Competition in Armenia and Georgia: Shifting Power and Tradition in the Orthodox Christian World

In this paper, I argue that is that it is not religion itself—religious doctrine, beliefs, or practice—that affects political outcomes. Rather, it is how different groups in transitioning countries use religion to gain power and influence outcomes. I argue that there is nothing peculiar to Eastern Christianity that requires that it oppose democracy. Rather, it is the confluence of Eastern Christian religious organizations with nationalist sentiments and movements that has made them at different times supporters of liberalization and opponents of it. […]


[…] given the fact that advantages for the Georgian Orthodox Church were guaranteed at the constitutional level, it is difficult to argue that a law on religion would not improve the situation of religious minorities in Georgia. Without such a law, groups are unable to own property and function as public entities. Moreover, because of the number of advantages given to the Georgian Orthodox Church, minorities have no recourse in claims against the majority Church.


[…] the Georgian Orthodox Church allies itself with more conservative nationalist groups within the country to push its agenda and protest the opening of the marketplace to new religious movements.


Stiopa Safarian, policy analyst at the Armenian Center for National and International Studies (ACNIS) described the religious situation in Armenia as part of a bigger problem of not recognizing the rights of minorities in the country. But this attitude does not characterize the Armenians alone. A comparative study of public opinion polls taken in Baku, Tbilisi and Yerevan in 2004 found that people in the Caucasus are intolerant of other ethnic groups and have a limited understanding of the role of democracy in resolving conflicts.

[…] During a visit to Armenia in 2005, I interviewed leaders of several NGOs in Armenia. The consensus among them was that the typical Armenian citizen does not understand the concepts of human rights or democracy. 22 Some claimed that the typical Armenian understands human rights to contain western, anti-national, and anti-traditional ideas such as the protection of the rights of homosexuals and other ideas that serve to erode Armenian culture. By democracy, most noted that Armenians understand the concept to entail not much more than voting for the president, or as one interview subject noted, electing the “king.” These groups are working to increase awareness of violations of human rights taking place in the country and to educate people on how to be participatory citizens. However, they remain on the margins of society, with power concentrated among government leaders and oligarchs.

Meanwhile, another draconian religious law was pushed through in Karabakh while people were away from work and government at the New Year/X-mas.

The main restrictions in Karabakh’s new Law are: an apparent ban on unregistered religious activity; state censorship of religious literature; the requirement for 100 adult citizens to register a religious community; an undefined “monopoly” given to the Armenian Apostolic Church over preaching and spreading its faith while restricting other faiths to similarly undefined “rallying their own faithful”; and the vague formulation of restrictions, making the intended implementation of many articles uncertain.


The Jehovah’s Witnesses report that when they met Ashot Sargsyan, the head of the government’s Department for Ethnic Minority and Religious Affairs, in November 2008, he told them that as long as he is working for the government they will not get registration. “He said openly he’s a member of the Armenian Church,” they told Forum 18.


In a potentially significant change from the parallel article in Armenia’s Law, the Karabakh Law removes the specific recognition that registered religious organisations can hold services “in homes and residences of citizens” from the list of suitable places as given in Armenia’s Law.

Article 17 – like the corresponding article in the Armenian Law - specifically gives the Armenian Apostolic Church a “monopoly” of preaching its faith, building new churches, contributing to the “spiritual edification of the people” including by teaching in state-run educational institutions, conducting charitable activity and maintaining permanent religious representatives in institutions such as hospitals, old people’s homes, military units and prisons.


Karabakh’s new Law gives a place of primacy to the Armenian Church in Article 6, and only this Church is mentioned in relation to the restitution of religious property. This is despite the fact that several mosques still stand – even if badly damaged during fighting in the early 1990s over Karabakh and in subsequent reprisal attacks – in areas controlled by the Karabakh authorities. The mosques have been abandoned since the Azeri and Kurdish populations were driven out during the war.

Another controversial provision comes in Article 22, which is not present in Armenia’s Religion Law. This Article hands the state “control” over the production, distribution and import of religious literature and objects. The Article does not clarify the exact nature of such “control”.

Onnik Krikorian said...

And I just found a post by you on yet another initiative by Armen Ashotian, the author of the new restrictive religious law in Armenia...

What is next? Armenian patriarch as head of state elected by the National Ecclesiastical Assembly?

…and not only in Armenia.

Recent survey in Georgia shows that Georgians trust their orthodox church the most (91% of surveyed). It follows by independent media and human rights Ombudsman (no numbers are provided within the news report but I assume they came the distant 2nd and 3rd). The least trusted for Georgians are courts and the mayor of Tbilisi.

With this mentality and state of affairs, the future for the South Caucasus is not looking that bright, after all.

Be concerned, people. Be very concerned...

Ani said...

Lots of Russians stop and cross themselves in front of churches, too--I guess this is something Georgians and Russians agree on?

artmika said...

That's one of the reasons I highlighted here the Georgian case. Although Armenia is not quite there yet, but trends, as proved by number of references above, are not encouraging at all. I do agree that this should be a matter for serious concerns. And yes, it's a part of a bigger problem of respect for human rights which is lacking (and deteriorating) in the South Caucasus, Russia...

Onnik Krikorian said...

RFE/RL today reported on the Armenian legislation and also quotes concerns from one civil society activist:

Armenia’s parliament looks set to pass legal amendments that will make it a crime for non-traditional religious groups to proselytize on adherents of the Armenian Apostolic Church.


The head of the Armenian branch of the U.S.-based Church of Jesus Christ and the Latter-Day Saints, also known as the Mormons, expressed concern at these amendments as he discussed them with Ashotian in the presence of journalists. Varuzhan Poghosian said he believes they would unfairly restrict freedom of religion guaranteed by the Armenian constitution.

Poghosian’s concerns were echoed by Stepan Danielian, a civil rights campaigner. Speaking to RFE/RL, Danielian said proselytism is a purely religious term that can not have a legal status in a secular state. “In essence, the church is trying to become a state within the state and assume state functions, something which contradicts the principles of secularism,” he said, adding that the amendments would put Armenia at odds with the Council of Europe.


Armen Filadelfiatsi said...

A law that prohibits very wealthy N. American churches from bribing the citizens of Armenia into espousing ideas even more ridiculous than those of traditional churches is not fairly characterized as "draconian."

Mormons wear magical underwear that protects them from evil and think that they were red-skinned native Americans who turned white when they saw Jesus descend from the sky. Fine.

But the state prohibiting the Mormon church from paying parents to raise their children in that belief is, not an example of its instituting "draconian laws," but an example of a type of state regulation of big capital.