How Georgian Christian Orthodox Church stole 17th of May or Why I am Afraid of Religion

Ketevan Khomeriki

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While in Europe almost 15 States recognize same-sex marriage and 29 Statesdo so in case of same-sex partnerships and while European Court of Human Rights clearly declares that States have positive obligation to ensure respect for gay couples’ “private and family life… allowing them to have their relationship recognized and protected under domestic law”,[1] Georgia, who is claiming to be worthy of EU membership, keeps nurturing medieval religious approaches not only among the general population, but in each branch of the Government, Parliament and judicial system. It seems like everyone and everything is obsessed by religious beliefs in Georgia. There are churches of different sizes almost in each corner of each city or village across the country. Demands to protect, preserve and worship Georgia’s ‘national heritage’ (religion) reach the almost unbelievable level of absurdity. Thus, it will not sound strange to say that everything connected to sexuality and everything that is not in compliance with the Georgian, Orthodox, white, heterosexual male preferences, is viewed as an enemy of the nation.

In order to set the scene, I will start with events in 2002, when the State and the Georgian Orthodox Church reached a constitutional agreement according to which the State obliged itself to calculate the material damage of the Orthodox Church caused by the Soviet regime and pledged to partially compensate for the damage. Unfortunately, the State failed to calculate the damage and instead it started to pay ‘compensation’ without any calculation. Between 2002-2015 the Orthodox Church received approximately 70 million EUR from the state budget. Between 2009-2013 the annual transfers were roughly 8-10 million EUR and since 2013 annual transfer is approximately 8.5 million EUR.[2] For comparison, the annual budget of the whole Court system (First instance Courts, Appeal Courts, Supreme Court,High School of Justice, High Council of Justice) in 2018 was roughly 19 million EUR.[3] Plus, the State annually grants to the Church real estates without any charge, as a gift. For example, in 2014-2015 the Georgian Orthodox Church received 48 units of real estate from the Government with the overall area of 913 546,922 m2.[4]

In addition, the incomereceived by the Orthodox Churchthrough the sales of crosses, candles, books, calendars and other religious objects is not taxable. Media and some of the civil society organizations periodically disseminate information about the businesses owned by the Church and its high-ranking religious leaders. For example, one online media outlet states that the Orthodox Church runs 44 commercial and 105 non-commercial organizations.[5] Here, against all these numbers I would like to point out that the population of Georgia is 3,500,000 and that according to the National Statistics Office of Georgia, the monthly minimum wage of able-bodied men is approximately 60 EUR.[6]

Considering all of these numbers, I presume it should be easier to understand how rich Georgia’s Orthodox Church is and the amount of influence it has on the country’s politics. This influence is extremely high in population as well. 88% of the population trusts the Orthodox Churchand thus it remains to be the most influential institution in Georgia.[7] Consequently, it is obvious that the current Government, as well as the previous one, continues to be very loyal to the Orthodox Church and no one dares to voice any criticism toward them. The Government is also loyal to the ideology promoted by the Church among the general population and this ideology is very much like the one promoted by the Russian Orthodox Church. It includes promoting negative attitudes toward the USA and Europe, depicting Russia as the one and only ally to Georgia, and of course promoting homophobia. It may be a very heavy accusation to state it as a fact but based on my subjective observation and personal opinion, the Orthodox Church is not far away from the promotion of hatred toward other races and nations.

When the richest and the most influential organization promotes homophobia for many years, obviously it achieves the expected results. Homophobia in Georgia reaches an unbelievable scale. Thus, in 2012 and 2013 it resulted the clashes between the LGBTQI activists and the Orthodox Church and its followers. Particularly, on May 17th[8] 2012 the local LGBTQI community decided for the first time in Georgia’s history to go public and conduct a small, peaceful demonstration with banners and slogans like “I am gay”, “I like my gay friend”, etc. But the rally was disrupted by counter demonstrators of the two religious groupsand instead of arresting them, the police arrested members of the LGBTQI community.[9] The community decided to plan in another event for May 17, 2013 in advance and was actively communicating with the Ministry of Internal Affairs to ensure security of the demonstrators. The community received permission to hold a silent 20-minute long flash-mob in the center of Tbilisi, in front of the former building of the Parliament of Georgia.

Meanwhile the Orthodox Church was not spending time doing nothing either. The Church with all its priests and followers was actively trying to mobilize people from all over Georgia to stand against the “Gay Propaganda” on May 17th and not to allow LGBTQI activists to hold the flash-mob, which was already authorized by the Government. They did the “best” job. The Church was able to mobilize 20,000 followers against approximately 40-60 LGBTQI activists. None of the LGBTQI activists and their friends who were participating in the event that day will ever forget what happened in the center of Tbilisi on 17th May, 2013. It’s been already 5 years since that day and the memories are still very vivid. I’ve been planning to write about my reflections of that day every year since then, but as soon as I start writing and trying to remember everything, I simply can’t move away from one particular memory.  It was a moment when I finally realized the reality of what was happening: the microbus with us in it (LGBTQI individuals, activists and friends – 20 people in overall) surrounded by hundreds of people full of hate, cruelty and inhumanity; the Orthodox church believers willing and ready to lynch (stone) us. After all these years, I haven’t overcome that fear and the horror of being lynched publicly in the 21st century for loving someone and the possibility of dying in an extremely painful way (see video materials in footnote 10).[10] Luckily for us, no one died on that day, but people who claim to be very Christian and claim having very high moral really wanted to see a lot of blood on that day.

Georgian religious leaders were very satisfied with the outcome of the event on 17th of May 2013. It was perceived as a victory over the immorality. The Head of the Georgian Orthodox Church decided to steal 17th of May from the LGBTQI community in Georgia and unashamedly announced May 17 as the day for Sanctity of the Family. Come 2014, 2015, 2016… no one dared to organize any public event dedicated to the rights of LGBTQI people. Each May since 2013 is like a “hunting month” on LGBTQI people. Each May homophobia reaches its even higher levels. Each May is like a horror movie for the LGBTQI community in Georgia. Everyone tries to be careful and not to fall victim to the aggressive homophobes. Each year tens of reports are shared on violence against the LGBTQI individuals, killing of transgender people, bullying, being kicked out of home, being rejected by families. Each year the LGBTQI issues are used as a main political game. The current government’s main message to their voters before the parliamentary elections in 2016 was the promise to “amend” the Constitution by including in it that marriage is the union between women and men and replacing the current statement, where marriage is described as the union “between the spouses.” They have upheld this promise. I think it’s the only one promise they have fulfilled. The Georgian Parliamentary Committee on Human right unashamedly voted for changing the marriage definition in the constitution. But the saddest of all is that people are now happy. Their dream is fulfilled and now even the constitution is unable to undermine the ‘sanctity’ of the Georgian families.

Now the Parliament members are apologizing in social media for voting for the opposition candidate as one of the Board members of the Public Broadcaster, who publicly criticizes the Georgian Orthodox Church. Members of the Parliamentary Committee of Human Rights are making discriminatory statements against the LGBTQI individuals. Judges are penalizing a local condom-producing company for packaging their condoms in a way that is believed as insulting the national and religious beliefs: one of the condom packages shows two fingers witha condom on them. The claimant argue that the Georgian Orthodox priests use those two fingers to cross themselves and pray for followers.[11]

The current biggest issue for the LGBTQI community in Georgia is not about the right to family and marriage. It’s about the right to live and be physically safe when they are out. It’s about having the right to just gather silently on the day, which is recognized internationally as the day against homophobia and transphobia and not be brutally punished for it.

Lastly, I would also like to touch upon the Estonian situation. In Georgia the pattern of hatred towards and nonacceptance of LGBTQI individuals is rooted in the influence of the religion. But it is difficult for me to understand how the country which claims to be the less religious country in the world or at least in the EU, keeps refusing to grant same-sex couples the right to marriage (however, recognizes civil partnerships). It may also be a tool for political manipulations in the country which is trying so hard to be in the list of “the most developed”? I don’t have any hopes for Georgia to change its attitudes any time soon, but I do hope that at least Estonian politics and the Estonian Government will be improve its human rights law standards, will refrain from turning the lives of LGBTQI individuals into an instrument for political manipulations and will grant them the right to marriage equally with others.

[1]ECtHR case of Oliari and others v. Italy (Applications nos. 18766/11 and 36030/11) – https://hudoc.echr.coe.int/eng#{“itemid”:[“001-156265”]}

[2]TDI, EMC, – Report on Financing religious organizations by State, Page 12, http://www.tdi.ge/sites/default/files/religiuri-organizaciebis-saxelmcipo-dapinansebis-politika-2014-2015.pdf

[3]Statistics of the Court System budget – http://www.supremecourt.ge/files/upload-file/pdf/tanamdebobrivi-sargo-2015weli.pdf

[4]Ibid., page 9

[5]https://on.ge/story/13197-საპატრიარქოს-კაპიტალი

[6]http://www.geostat.ge/?action=page&p_id=178&lang=geo

[7]http://www.iri.org/sites/default/files/iri_poll_presentation_georgia_2017.03-general.pdf

[8]17thMay is the International day against the homophobia and transphobia

[9]More information about the facts: Case of Identoba and Others v. Georgia (Application no.73235/12) https://hudoc.echr.coe.int/eng#{“itemid”:[“001-154400”]}

[10]Orthodox church believers trying to stop the bus with LGBT activist: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fuTacTQw6ls&index=3&t=0s&list=WL; video material inside the micro buss: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ypfz3B51DwU&index=12&t=0s&list=WL

[11]http://netgazeti.ge/news/273909/

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