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June 27, 2012

Rollerblading 'Priest' Stirs Controversy in Georgia

Giorgi Lomsadze
June 26, 2012

A bearded Orthodox priest solemnly gliding by on rollerblades is not a usual sight in Georgia. Or elsewhere, for that matter. Yet along a bridge and into Tbilisi's downtown area a priest in flowing robes did glide the other day. Granted, the Bible chronicles stranger things, but several alarmed local priests promptly appeared on the scene and ordered the holy roller to give up his sinful ways.

In fact, the coasting reverend was an actor and the miraculous sight was part of a movie project, but the real clerics declared that the scene ridiculed the Georgian Orthodox Church and demanded a halt to production. Police had to intervene between the film crew and the priests, who were backed up by seminary students. In the end, the movie-makers beat a retreat, reported the news site.

Back in the Soviet era, parodying priests in movies was frequent and keenly encouraged by the state. A confrontation between a rotund, gluttonous priest and a relentless anarchist ("Jesus was slim. What made you gain weight?") is a trademark of the 1970s classic, The Adventures of Lazarus. One of the best known Georgian movies from the same period, The Wishing Tree, features a frivolous village priest with a taste for the bottle.

But those days are long gone. Now, Georgia is in the midst of a cultural war between those who push for Western-European-style secularism, and those who view the 1,675-year-old Georgian Orthodox Church as the very essence of national identity.

The Georgian Orthodox Church, widely viewed as the country's most trusted institution, has taken on the Harry Potter series, Halloween celebrations and any sacrilegious work of fiction -- a tendency that liberal critics say amounts to encroachments on freedom of expression.

The confrontation between the faithful and the liberals mostly rages online, but sometimes it spills into the streets. In comments to Netgazeti, Levan Ghlonti, the director of the film with the skating priest, essentially reiterated the point made by The Adventures of Lazarus anarchist.

Georgian priests make no bones about driving fancy SUVs, but make a big deal out of rollerblades, he said.