Georgia Asks: Where Does God Stand in This Election?
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.
In the Black Sea city of Poti, a priest grabbed and threw away a reporter's flip camcorder after she asked him why posters depicting President Saakashvili together with Patriarch Ilia II had appeared around a new cathedral. Church authorities condemned the priest’s actions and said that a church is no place for campaigning. But the incident is symptomatic of a bigger problem -- a persistent, and increasingly emotional, divide among Georgians over the role and influence of the Georgian Orthodox Church.