July 6, 2011

Patriarch Ilia Against the Legal Recognition of Five Religious Groups

July 5, 2011

The head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Ilia II, has called on the Parliament “to suspend” approval of legislative amendments, which will allow five minority religious groups in Georgia to be registered as legal entities of public law – a legal status long sought by the religious groups.

In a written statement released on July 4 Ilia II said that such an important document should only be passed after public discussions and reaching “a consensus” with the Georgian Orthodox Church.

Under the existing law in order to receive a legal status, a religious group, other than the Georgian Orthodox Church whose special role and status is recognized by the 2002 concordat with the state, can be registered as a noncommercial entity of private law.

Such form of registration, however, has long been a source of complaint for religious minorities, which say that this rule deprives them the privilege to be formally recognized as religions in Georgia.

The Parliament passed amendments to the civil code with its first reading on July 1, according to which the Armenian Apostolic Church, Roman Catholic Church, Evangelical Baptist Church, Muslim and Jewish communities in Georgia will have the right to be registered as legal entities of public law.

According to the proposal, these five groups were selected because these religious communities “have close historic ties with Georgia.”

The ruling party lawmakers initiated legislative amendments less than two weeks after the visit to Georgia by the Armenian Catholicos, Karekin II, who was discussing with the Georgian side legal status of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Georgia and disputed ownership of several churches in Georgia.

According to the Armenian Church, during Karekin II’s meeting with President Saakashvili on June 10 the latter agreed to register the Armenian Apostolic Church in Georgia; however, no agreement has been reached on the issue between the heads of the Georgian and Armenian churches. Ilia II said at the time that the legal status of the Georgian Church in Armenia should be the same one that the Armenian Church would have in Georgia. After the visit, Ilia II also said that the head of the Armenian Church was clever, but young, who needed “to gain more experience” and who wanted “everything to be done fast.” The Armenian Church responded that it respected Ilia II, but described his remarks as “inappropriate.”

“The [Georgian Orthodox] Church has never been against and has always supported granting status to other religions in Georgia, but this process has not seen an appropriate follow-up, meaning that no comprehensive state commission has been established by the authorities to study and agree on the issue,” Ilia II said in the written statement.

“It is noteworthy, that the issue of ownership and taking care of the Georgian churches in other countries has not been raised so far and the discussion of status of our church [in foreign countries has not yet started too.”

“Against this background approval of such an important document by the Parliament without public discussions and in such a hasty way is totally incomprehensible.”

“We deem it necessary to suspend further approval of the draft law (with its second and third readings) and [it is necessary] to hold public debates (including live televised debates) in order to form broad public opinion and to reach a consensus with the Orthodox Church, because a vast majority of the population is Orthodox Christian,” Ilia II said.

During the discussion of the proposed draft law in the Parliament on July 1, lawmakers from the Christian-Democratic Movement (CDM), a leading party in a small parliamentary minority group, also called on the ruling party not to hurry with approval of the draft.

“I think we should refrain from unilaterally taking such decisions; let’s ask [the Georgian Orthodox] Church how protected the legal status of our Church is in our neighboring countries,” MP Nika Laliashvili of CDM said.