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.
Everyone can sigh with relief. Georgia’s justice officials say they are not in league with the devil and have no plans to assist the Antichrist to take over the world.
In a bizarre public-service announcement, Georgia’s Justice Ministry on April 20 announced that new, biometric ID cards for Georgian citizens are not a satanic creation. “The assumption that the new ID card is the seal of the Antichrist and that it contains the sign of the beast is not correct,” explained an earnest young man in a video produced by the ministry.
“Georgia’s Public Registry took upon itself a commitment not to place the number six three times in a row on any of the IDs,” the man elaborated, in reference to the mark, which, according to the Bible's Book of Revelation, will be the mark of a beast which will force worship of another beast. "Nor will it be in the future."
But the assurances have not assuaged widespread suspicions. This January, Georgian Orthodox Church faithful gathered in front of the justice ministry to protest against the cards, which, they claim, will help the devil control Georgia and bring on the Antichrist.
President Mikheil Saakashvili and Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili vie in pleasing the patriarch.
Georgia’s two squabbling rulers, the prime minister and the president, both need love . . . the love of the country’s spiritual leader, the guardian of national unity, the primus inter pares, Georgian Orthodox Church Patriarch Ilia II.
“You love him more,” Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, apparently in a sudden grip of jealousy, told the patriarch at a January 14 gathering, pointing at President Mikheil Saakashvili, who stood towering over both men with a happy smile.
“Now, why would you say he loves me more?” responded the president, tapping his diminutive rival on the shoulder.
The aging prelate, caught in the middle of the awkward exchange, maintained a diplomatic silence.
The footage of the meeting cuts there, so we don’t know the outcome of this telling conversation, but the party at the patriarch’s showed rather clearly that Georgia’s political system is not a diarchy, but a triumvirate, and that secular leaders need to vie for the holy graces of the chief of the Georgian Orthodox Church.
Georgians’ infatuation with their political leaders is pretty much a one-night stand and they tend to lose interest the moment leaders take office. But the patriarch always tops the national love charts.
And, so, well aware of the patriarch’s star power, Saakashvili and Ivanishvili turned up at the celebrations that marked Orthodox New Year, plus Ilia II's 80th birthday and the anniversary of his 1977 enthronement ; “a celebration of love,” as the church leader himself put it.
Political candidates around the world routinely insert God into their election campaigns, but, in passionately Orthodox Christian Georgia, politicians appear to be experiencing a particularly pressing need for divine assistance ahead of the October 1 parliamentary vote.
The popularity of the Georgian Orthodox Church at times could make the entire country seem like one big, happy parish. The Church always tops approval charts for public institutions and no public figure can challenge the celebrity of Georgian Orthodox Church Patriarch Ilia II. In the streets, drivers and pedestrians often halt -- sometimes in hazardous traffic situations -- and make signs of the cross whenever they see a church, whether near or far.
So, perhaps it is only logical for politicians to try to identify themselves with the Church and turn parishioners into voters. President Mikheil Saakashvili, leader of the ruling United National Movement, was recently spotted hoisting a cross over the newly-rebuilt, 11th-century Cathedral of the Dormition in Georgia's second-largest city, Kutaisi. Meanwhile, in Tbilisi's outskirts, a flag for billionaire opposition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream coalition flies outside the St. Ilia Chavchavadze church.
Both the billionaire and the president are rumored to be closet religious skeptics, but keeping a distance is proving harder as the elections draw nearer.
Used to public shows of piety, some clerics don’t take kindly to reporters seeking an explanation for the occasionally blurred line between Church and campaign.
God must be really confused at times by the religious squabbles in the South Caucasus, the Almighty’s favorite spot on earth, per local legends, and a place where church and politics are deeply intertwined. The latest in the centuries-old series of church mergers and break-ups comes from breakaway Abkhazia. Following long-running tensions, a schism in Abkhazia’s de facto independent church is now official.
It makes for an extremely complicated tableau. On May 15, a group of young Abkhaz clerics effectively parted ways with the territory’s de facto Orthodox leader, Father Vissarion Aplia, and declared a new diocese that will seek recognition of an independent Abkhaz Orthodox Church by the Patriarch of Constantinople, essentially the pope of the Christian Orthodox world.
Describing the clerics as "young, Western stipendiaries," supporters of the 70s-something Father Vissarion reminded "the dissenters" (раскольники) that the Abkhaz Orthodox Church's independence was already declared in 2009, and that their declaration "insulted" Father Vissarion as a "veteran of the Abkhaz People's Patriotic War" [meaning the 1992-1993 separatist conflict with Tbilisi].
So, to ballpark it, tiny Abkhazia now has two conflicting parties within an Orthodox church that, to begin with, is not formally recognized by the international Orthodox community. Abkhazia's parishes are still formally recognized as subject to the Georgian Orthodox Church.
Both wings of the de facto Abkhaz church want recognition of the region’s religious independence -- or autocephaly in church speak -- but they differ in their dealings with the Russian patriarchate.
Throughout the brouhaha over the book Saidumlo Siroba or Holy Crap, the Georgian Orthodox Church has kept silent. But now the Church has spoken. In a written statement on May 15, the Patriarchy called for adopting a law that would help shut fiction writers' blasphemous mouths. The Patriarchy charged that Holy Crap, which has set off everything from heated debates to televised fistfights, is part of an ongoing war against the Church and traditional Georgian values. The Church distanced itself from the violence, but said that the new law should censor any written exercise in “indecency, licentiousness and Satanism.”
A Brazilian soap opera would look tame by comparison. In the latest installment of Georgia's ongoing clash between Orthodox Christian fundamentalists and cultural liberals, Malkhaz Gulashvili, the founder of the ultra-radical People's Orthodox Movement, has hightailed it to separatist South Ossetia after a TV station fistfight which he claimed was the work of a pro-government think tank.
Liberals counter that Gulashvili's People's Orthodox Movement disrupted the broadcasts at Kavkasia television station, which had the indiscretion to discuss the smutty, anti-Church novel Saidumlo Siroba/Holy Crap in a May 7 talk show that included Gulashvili, publisher of The Georgian Times.
Confused yet? But wait, there's more. Brandishing the charge of "fascism," some liberals have accused Gulashvili of being a Russian spy on a mission to destabilize Georgia in the run-up to the country's May 30 local elections.
Tune in next week when, undoubtedly, in one format or another, the drama will continue.