In a modern office space in Tbilisi’s trendy Vake district, a scruffy haired teenager is undergoing his initiation into the priesthood.
Bishop Archil Khachidze, dressed in a baggy Adidas T-shirt and sweatpants, has just returned from the balcony where he has smoked a joint. “Our sacred herb,” he says with a grin.
“I believe that individual human rights are the most important and that personal freedom cannot be restricted,” he pledges. “Those who believe otherwise are irresponsible bureaucrats, homophobes, xenophobes and other bullies who bully and use violence onto others in accordance with their wicked worldview.”
And with that, a handshake, and a document signed by the patriarch, he is a priest in Georgia’s fastest growing “church,” which ordains about 40 new priests per day.
The ersatz church is a creation of a libertarian political party, Girchi, and cheekily named the “Christian, Evangelical, Protestant Biblical Freedom Church of Georgia.” Its goal isn't the spiritual salvation of its followers, but rather saving them from Georgia's dire military conscription system.
According to Georgian law, all men aged 18 to 27 are subject to a compulsory 12-month military service, with some exceptions made for those with ill health and for only sons from families in which at least one relative has died “fighting for Georgia’s territorial integrity.”
But another group of men allowed to legally avoid conscription are priests, and Girchi is aiming to use that loophole to help Georgia's young men enjoy the liberty of not joining the military.
Since registering their church with the Ministry of Justice last year, Girchi has been granted the power to issue a legal document declaring that someone is a priest. The legally recognized certificate bears the signature of the patriarch, as well as two bishops from the party, and can be submitted to a local conscription office for exemption.
So far the church has registered 5,000 people and has opened an additional office in Georgia’s second city, Kutaisi.
“We’ve cost the government about 10 million lari ($4 million) so far,” MP Zurab Japaridze, Girchi’s charismatic leader, told Eurasianet. “That’s a lot of money for a small country like Georgia.”
Japaridze was referring to another legal deferment category, with which men under 25 can delay their service by paying a fee of 2,000 lari ($775) per year.
In the end, only the poorest Georgians, lacking money and connections, are likely to be conscripted, said Giorgi Noniashvili, a legal expert at the Tolerance and Diversity Institute.
“The majority of men are trying to avoid conscription through studies while also trying to find jobs,” he said.
“I was summoned by the Ministry of Defense a couple of months ago, but then I heard about what Girchi were doing on Facebook,” said Mikheil Chkhenkeli, 22, a recently ordained priest in the church. “My father wasn’t happy about the idea – mainly because I would need to join a different church – but he understands that conscription is just slave labor.”
Conscription has a complex history in Georgia. After regaining its independence in the early 1990s, Tbilisi maintained the old Soviet model of mass conscription. It wasn’t until 2002, with assistance from the United States, that Georgia began an effort to fully professionalize its armed forces.
But various promises over the years to scrap conscription have come to naught, primarily because conscripts provide cheap labor for the state. Over 6,000 men are conscripted each year, with summons made in autumn and spring. Draftees are sent to one of three governmental agencies: the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, or the Ministry of Corrections. Only a quarter of those recruits are assigned to the military; the remainder guard government buildings. They are paid a nominal salary of 75 lari ($30) a month.
“Fundamental changes in the mandatory military service have not been implemented,” Noniashvili said. “Recruits are still used as free workers and many of them serve as prison guards.”
Levan Chigogidze, 27, was conscripted to work with the Ministry of Corrections guarding a prison outside Kutaisi in 2013. According to Chigogidze’s account, he received little to no training, having fired a gun just 15 times on the range before being put on the job. He also was regularly bullied by senior officers.
“Most people are degraded regularly and given senseless punishments like being forced to do press-ups on gravel with their fists,” Chigogidze told Eurasianet. “The gravel cuts into your hands and makes your knuckles bleed.”
Georgia’s government has tried to force the Evangelical, Protestant Biblical Freedom Church of Georgia to close. Last year, officials argued that the church does not meet the legal requirements for a religious organization since it lacks a space for members to hold prayers.
“We were going to buy an inflatable church from China that we found for $3,000 online. But we’re almost certain people would literally have killed us if we had put it up so we backed down,” Japaridze said with a laugh.
Parliament also approved a draft law which could send young men to prison for avoiding military service. Irakli Sesiashvili, chair of the parliament's Military and Security Committee, said during a session last year that Girchi’s church was abusing Georgian law.
“They tried to close the loophole but doing so would also take away the Orthodox Church’s privileges, and the Church doesn’t want that,” Japaridze said, as it would force them to debate “what a ‘real’ religion is.”
Japaridze says the church is a “political tool” that his party may wield against other laws members don't like.
In April, the opposition Alliance of Patriots of Georgia initiated a draft law which would ban “insulting religious feelings.” The ruling Georgian Dream coalition has also expressed support for the bill, which would punish hatred toward “religious sanctities, religious organizations, a cleric or parish, or publishing/displaying material which aims to insult religious feelings.” The draft was approved and is currently undergoing analysis to ensure it complies with the constitution.
“The funny thing with the offense of religious feelings bill is that it would also apply to us,” Japaridze said. “So the Orthodox Church won’t be able to call us a fake religion anymore, not to mention we would have the right to sue the thousands of people who have sent us hate mail. And I can tell you, [that would generate] enough money to fund our operations for many years to come.”
Bradley Jardine is a freelance journalist who covers the Caucasus.