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As many will have noticed, Georgia’s Constitutional Court in late 2017 ruled that consumption of cannabis and cannabis-derived products was no longer to be considered a criminal matter, and that the previous regime of incarceration of people found in possession of cannabis (which could be up to 7 years) would be abolished. Administrative fines were retained as an option for punishment. Even many very conservative people agreed with this ruling, as ruining a young person’s life with imprisonment amongst hardened criminals, as penalty for poor judgement and fairly commonplace juvenile risk-taking behaviour, seemed excessively harsh. Indeed Georgian Patriarch Ilia II in his Christmas homily explicitly asked for greater tolerance of drug addicts by Georgian society and the justice system. He however reiterated the Church’s view that drug addiction is a terrible scourge upon Georgia’s youth and that drug education programmes are urgently needed to warn youth of the risks of drug use, including cannabis.

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In July 2018, a further case was heard by the Constitutional Court to the effect that administrative fines for cannabis possession and consumption should also be abolished, based on the argument that cannabis users hurt only themselves and no other parties. The Constitutional Court agreed with this argument and ruled that administrative fines for simple possession were no longer lawful.

This was widely reported as “legalisation” of cannabis, but in spite of this, cultivation and distribution of cannabis remained in a grey area of the law. Elements within the ruling party structure saw a business opportunity to be exploited and lobbied the parliamentary majority to explicitly legalise the commercial production of cannabis in Georgia and its export and distribution in foreign countries.

The parties in question probably believed they could avoid a backlash from the Georgian Church and other conservative elements in Georgia by:

(1) Insisting that cultivation by private companies be restricted by strict licensing regime, instead of a free-for-all homegrown cottage industry developing.

(2) Proclaiming that cannabis produced over-quota would be destroyed under government supervision, rather than being released onto the local market.

(3) Production to be restricted to export markets (mostly certain EU member states permitting distribution and consumption), so that any health and societal risks attributable to cannabis use would be restricted to “degenerate foreigners”, instead of Georgia’s youth.

Imagine their surprise that this course of action caused near-universal outcry in Georgian society. Libertarian elements were outraged that grow-your-own models and cottage industries would be banned in favour of corporate cannabis farms owned by politically-connected corporations. Churchgoers did not have any faith that there would be no “leakage” of product over the farm gate into the domestic market, where it could be consumed by local youth, which the Patriarch later reiterated. A large proportion of Georgian people felt that their country would develop a bad reputation for hedonism and licentiousness that did not reflect its conservative Christian norms.

Patriarch Ilia’s sermon on August 5 was quite unambiguous

“The decision on legalization of marijuana consumption caused a big concern in Georgia. This is a big mistake. We should remember that permission for drug consumption is hostility towards our nation. I am convinced that those people, who granted this permission  do not agree with it themselves, but due to high pressure they were forced to take it…..We must not forget that if we allow drugs, we should allow drug sale and drug production. This will lead to setting up drug center here, as young people from neighboring countries having such interests will arrive in Georgia. Therefore, I call on everyone, first of all on the government, intellectuals and young people to take care of our homeland and our children”

Large protest marches attended by hundreds of people in the capital on September 16, including clergy, demonstrated the opposition of the people to this commercial cultivation legislation under consideration

In the face of this public opposition, the government backed down from its proposal to license cultivation of cannabis on September 17 and has stated that more public consultation is required before legislation can be tabled. Nonetheless they maintain that they are in the right, the public is being “misinformed” by various parties and that this is only a problem of perception.

An important local context is the recent trend of teenagers and young adults taking “party drugs” at nightclubs and electronic music festivals, with multiple fatalities recorded every month. In a country of only 3.7 million people, such deaths incite great trepidation into the hearts of citizens, particularly the parents of youth worried about their children’s welfare and safety in an uncertain world.

This is one of many issues associated with Georgia’s modernisation and opening up to the outside world. It is also part of the constant tension in any civilisation between the need to grant people the freedom to make their own mistakes and live with the consequences of their actions, and the need to protect the young and vulnerable.

The cannabis lobby have been very active in Georgia for over a decade. As low-THC cannabis grows wild in the hills, it is not hard for people to obtain, but modern commercial cannabis varieties have a high concentration of THC (up to 10 times higher) and a much more potent effect. The arguments for cannabis use, and counterarguments, include:

  • It is helpful for sufferers of glaucoma, cancer and post-operative patients dealing with pain (There is evidence to that effect, and under some circumstances prescription of medical marijuana might be indicated).
  • It is less harmful than tobacco (not true, much higher tar content than tobacco)
  • It has a neutral or positive effect upon mood (people with a genetic predisposition to schizophrenia are far more likely to develop clinical schizophrenia after using cannabis than those who abstain).
  • There is no relationship between light drugs like cannabis and more harmful drugs like heroin (people under the effect of cannabis experimenting with other drugs find opiates to be far more enjoyable, and hence addictive, than those trying opiates without cannabis in their system.)

The role cannabis plays as a gateway drug for other more dangerous intoxicants is a concern.

Regardless of one’s views on full legalisation and legitimisation of the cannabis industry, it is of great importance that education on the risks of drug taking, including alcohol and tobacco, be available to young people throughout the country. The Patriarchate is playing a role in this and there is scope for schools and secular organisations to play a bigger role in providing youngsters with legitimate information, so they may make wise and informed choices.

 

 

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As we mentioned before, the Feast of the Transfiguration of Christ, occurring today, is accompanied by a relaxation in fasting associated with the Dormition Fast. According to tradition, Georgian Christians may not eat grapes during the fast, and the grape harvest may not start before August 19.

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It is an interesting coincidence that the Jewish feast of Tu B’Av ( ט”ו באב , the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Av) also occurs today. Known as “the Jewish Valentine’s Day”, it is a holiday enjoying a resurgence in Israel today. Dating from the Second Temple era, it is first mentioned in the Mishna ;“There were no better days for the people of Israel than the Fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur, since on these days the daughters of Jerusalem go out dressed in white and dance in the vineyards”. During this period, Tu B’Av served as the official beginning of the grape harvest, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, as the end of the grape harvest.

Traditionally betrothed women danced in Shilo, a village in Samaria (in the northern West Bank), which was the first capital of Israel. Since Jewish settlement in the West Bank resumed, Jews visit the vineyards of the Jewish community of Shilo on Tu B’Av,  and dance and sing in the vineyards.

Jews have lived in Georgia since the 6th century BC, having migrated here during the Babylonian Exile, and many Jews settled in Persian-controlled parts of Georgia over the centuries as they found authorities more tolerant towards Jews than the Byzantine authorities. Coincidentally, eastern Georgia, long under Persian control, produces around 80% of Georgia’s wine.

While Transfiguration is a fixed feast, and Tu B’Av is a moveable feast based on the Hebrew lunar calendar, it is interesting that Georgia’s official grape harvest start date falls two weeks before anyone in Georgia starts the vintage…but exactly on the date that Jews in Israel begin their grape harvest. It would be interesting to discover to what extent Jews in Georgia, with their own ancient viticultural traditions and winemaking norms, influenced certain festivals and conventions in viticulture here.

The church choirs of Georgia are an integral part of Georgian spiritual life. It is common to encounter men’s choirs, ladies choirs, mixed choirs and youth choirs. It is very common for such choirs to also have strong capability in Georgian folk song, and many folk ensembles emanated from church choirs.  Choirs from the Greek, Slavonic, Aramaic and English-language parishes of Georgia add further diversity to the mix.

Georgia’s three-part polyphonic vocal style is quite unique, and there are some who consider the polyphony, periodically converging into unison, as being emblematic of the nature of the Trinity itself. The choir of Trinity Cathedral are a remarkable choir, with a strong mastery of traditional sacred music and folk tunes, as well as popularising contemporary sacred music, much of which is written by Patriarch Ilia. Their command of contemporary secular choir music by composers like Giya Kancheli,  Josef Kechakmadze and Zviad Bolkvadze (a talented soloist himself) makes them one of the most versatile and accomplished choirs in the Caucasus.

This concert from 2014 displays their full versatility, from Kakhetian and Gurian folk songs, Patriarch Ilia’s sacred music, contemporary secular choral works and traditional sacred pieces of great beauty.

The choir’s Youtube Channel and Soundcloud repository are well worth following, and of course Saturday afternoons and Sunday mornings at Sameba Cathedral are the ideal opportunity for experiencing the choir’s art in person.

 

Saint David of Gareja (Tsminda Daviti Garejeli) is one of Georgia’s favourite saints and associated with the complex of monasteries in Georgia’s rugged southern Kvemo Kartli badlands. My favourite part of the country….

 

Saint David was one of Georgia’s Thirteen Assyrian Fathers, of whom we have written before regarding Saint Joseph of Aleverdi in Kakheti. Settling in Georgia from Mesopotamia in the 6th Century, they were responsible for the development of monasticism in Iberia after its official conversion to Christianity, but while Persian Zoroastrianism and native animism were still widely practiced in Georgia. In icons, he is widely pictured in the company of deer, with whom he shared the wilderness in his early years. Today is his Saint’s Day.

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Saint David of Gareji was Syrian by birth. The future ascetic became a disciple of Saint John of Zedazeni and journeyed with him to Georgia. Saint David and his spiritual son Lucian settled on a mountain above Tbilisi, the capital of Kartli.

At that time Kartli was constantly under threat of the Persian fire-worshippers. Saint David would spend entire days in prayer, beseeching the Lord for forgiveness of the sins of those who dwelt in the city. When he was finished praying for the day, he would stand on the mountain and bless the whole city. Once a week Saints David and Lucian would go down into the city to preach. A church dedicated to Saint David was later built on the mountain where he laboured.

Saint David’s authority and popularity alarmed the fire-worshippers, and they accused him of adultery, in an attempt to discredit him in the eyes of the people. As a “witness” they summoned a certain expectant prostitute, who accused him of being the child’s father. Hoping in God, the holy father touched his staff to the prostitute’s womb and ordered the unborn child to declare the truth. From out of the womb the infant uttered the name of his true father.

Outraged at this slander, the bystanders savagely stoned the woman to death. Saint David pleaded with them to stop, but he was unable to placate the furious crowd. Deeply disturbed by these events, Saint David departed the region with his disciple Lucian.  The holy fathers settled in a small cave in the wilderness and began to spend all their time in prayer. They ate nothing but herbs and the bark of trees. When the herbs withered from the summer heat, the Lord sent them deer. Lucian milked them and brought the milk to Saint David, and when the elder made the sign of the Cross over the milk it was miraculously transformed into cheese.

Shaken by the holy father’s miracle, Lucian told him, “Even if my body rots and wastes away from hunger and thirst, I will not permit myself to fret over the things of this temporal life.”

The fathers kept a strict fast on Wednesdays and Fridays—they ate nothing, and even the deer did not come to them on those days.

A frightful serpent inhabited a cave not far from where they lived and attacked all the animals around it. But at Saint David’s command the serpent deserted that place.

Once local hunters were tracking the fathers’ deer, and they caught sight of Lucian milking them as they stood there quietly, as though they were sheep. The hunters paid great respect to Saint David and, having returned to their homes, reported what they had seen.

Soon the Gareji wilderness filled with people who longed to draw nearer to Christ. A monastery was founded there, and for centuries it stood fast as a center and cornerstone of faith and learning in Georgia.

After some time Saint David set off on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He entrusted Lucian to fulfil his responsibilities at the monastery and took some of the other brothers with him. When the pilgrims were approaching the place called the “Ridge of Grace,” from which the holy city of Jerusalem becomes visible, Saint David fell to his knees and glorified God with tears. Judging himself unworthy to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, he was satisfied to gaze upon the city from afar.

Then he stood at the city gates and prayed fervently while his companions entered the Holy City and venerated the holy places. Returning, Saint David took with him three stones from the “Ridge of Grace.” That night an angel appeared to the patriarch of Jerusalem and informed him that a certain pious man named David, who was visiting from afar, had taken with him all the holiness of Jerusalem.

The angel proceeded to tell him that the venerable one had marched through the city of Nablus, clothed in tatters and bearing on his shoulders an old sack in which he carried the three holy stones. The patriarch sent messengers after the stranger with a request that he return two of the stones and take only one for himself. St. David returned the two stones, but he declined the patriarch’s invitation to visit him. He took the third stone back with him to the monastery, and to this day it has been full of the grace of miraculous healing.

After Saint David brought the miraculous stone from Jerusalem, the number of brothers at the monastery doubled. The venerable father ministered to all of them and encouraged them. He also visited the cells of the elder hermits to offer his solace. In accordance with his will, a monastery in the name of Saint John the Baptist was founded in the place called “Mravalmta” (the Rolling Mountains).

The Lord God informed Saint David of his imminent departure to the Kingdom of Heaven. Then he gathered the fathers of the wilderness and instructed them for the last time not to fall into confusion, but to be firm and ceaselessly entreat the Lord for the salvation of their souls.

He received Holy Communion, lifted up his hands to the Lord, and gave up his spirit.

St. David’s holy relics have worked many miracles: approaching them, those blind from birth have received their sight. To this day, believers have been healed of every spiritual and bodily affliction at his grave.

From “Lives of the Georgian Saints” by Archpriest Zacharaiah Machitadze, Saint Hermans Press.

 

As most readers will know, a terrible civil war broke out in Georgia’s northwestern Abkhazia region in the early 1990’s, with huge civilian casualties on both sides and finally, the ethnic cleansing of most of the region’s ethnic Georgian population by Apsuan (Abkhaz) militias and Russian troops.

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The roots of this conflict are disputed, with some saying that chauvinistic policies of the newly-minted Georgian government regarding ethnic minorities created a conflict where none had existed before. Others say that elements of the Russian military and intelligence created the conflict in collaboration with a small number of Apsuan opportunists, as part of the Russian “Divide and Rule” policy mirrored in Moldova and Azerbaijan. It is within the realms of possibility that the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Georgia’s Patriarch Ilia was a bishop in Abkhazia in the late 1960’s, so he is no doubt quite well acquainted with many of the identities amongst the Orthodox Christian population of today’s Abkhazia. Native Christians are in the awkward position of being under the recognised canonical authority of the Church of Georgia, at a time when no Georgian clergy are permitted to enter the region. Concurrently some elements in the Moscow Patriarchate have been trying to increase their influence and role in religious affairs in Abkhazia, which is not entirely welcomed by all the Orthodox Christians there. It would not be surprising if local Christians felt they were in the midst of a jurisdictional tug-of-war.

Recently one of Abkazia’s Apsuan clergymen filmed an appeal to the Pan-Orthodox Council, requesting recognition of the Church of Abkhazia as an autocephalous Orthodox Church. It makes for interesting viewing.

Please note that the author does not endorse his views or arguments, and our learned Georgian friends will no doubt find ample opportunities to dispute his historical justifications for autocephaly. It is however important to understand the thinking and arguments of a Christian community who feel their needs are not currently being met by existing arrangements, so that creative solutions may be found.

The blog’s readers are welcome to contribute their comments (in a civil and respectful spirit) in response to his appeal.

The Church of Georgia, presiding over the most ethnically diverse country in the region, has generally done a very good job of managing its mission to ethnic minorities in Georgia. Under the authority of the Georgian Patriarchate, we have two Slavonic-language parishes in Tbilisi, two Greek-language parishes on the Black Sea coast, an Aramaic-language parish in the Assyrian town of Qanda in Mtskheta-Mtianeti, and an English-language parish in Tbilisi. Intermarriage between the faithful of different ethnic groups is common. It is not unusual to find Georgians of Armenian, Chechen, Ossetian and Apsuan descent in Georgian or Slavonic-language parishes in Tbilisi, where they are treated the same as any other parishioner.

Abkhazia is also a multi-ethnic region, with churches attended by a mixture of Apsuans, Slavs, Greeks and (in some regions where Georgians remain), Mingrelians. It also has non-Orthodox minorities; Armenian Apostolic Christians, a tiny number of Roman Catholics and Protestants, Muslims and Pagans. Just as the rest of Georgia faces challenges dealing with diversity, so does the region of Abkhazia. With few non-Georgian residents of Abkhazia travelling to Georgia since 1991, it is possible that Apsuan attitudes are frozen within the bitter experiences of the early 1990’s, and impressions of the Georgian Church’s willingness to make accommodations for ethnic differences, liturgical language and regional peculiarities are outdated. It is quite possible that Christian communities in Abkhazia could learn a great deal from their co-religionists in the rest of Georgia in this regard.

It is terribly sad to witness schism, both political and ecclesiastical, within Georgia’s borders, and it is to be hoped that two fraternal peoples who have worshipped side-by-side for centuries and intermarried so extensively can achieve a satisfactory reconciliation with time.

 

 

We wrote previously about the Synaxis of the Primates , at which time the Church was setting the parameters for the discussions to be held between the different Orthodox Patriarchates in Crete this month.

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Since then, there has been significant difficulty in reaching agreement on many issues, including the texts of documents to be released representing the unanimous view of the Heirarchs on many doctrinal issues.

Recently, the Church of Bulgaria requested a delay in the date of the Council until its concerns on several issues could be addressed, including seating at the council, the role of observers (including Latins and Protestants) and doctrinal issues. Unfortunately this was not resolved and the Bulgarian Church has withdrawn from the Council.

The Serbian Church likewise has withdrawn from the Council, citing ” deteriorating relations between us and the Patriarchate of Romania, which are now hard to overcome, due to the anti-canonical incursion of the latter into Eastern Serbia and the founding of a parallel diocese there, which will lead to severing of liturgical and canonical communion of the two neighbouring Churches if the behavior described above is not terminated”.

The Patriarchate of Antioch has an ongoing jurisdictional dispute with the Patriarchate of Jerusalem in the Persian Gulf, which is unfortunate. There are reports of the Patriarchate of Antioch withdrawing from the Pan-Orthodox Council but the Patriarchate has yet to release a press release to that effect.

Late in May, the Georgian Church released the discussions of its Holy Synod regarding doctrinal concerns they had with the documents released by the Pan-Orthodox Council secretariat. An English translation can be seen here .

Without going into great detail, the Georgian Church’s position on some issues such as mixed-marriages, relations with the Heterodox, and homosexuality is somewhat more conservative than that espoused in the Council’s documents.

On June 13, Patriarch Ilia II sent a letter to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, advising that the Georgian Church would not be participating in the Pan-Orthodox Council. The minutes of the Georgian Synod meeting are presented here in Greek.

Representative of the Holy Synod of the Georgian Church, Archbishop Andrew of Gori and Ateni, reportedly was quoted as saying;

“The goal of the convocation of the future Council is to demonstrate Orthodox unity before the world community and to express the common position of the Orthodox Church on the burning problems of today”. However, this goal cannot be achieved for several reasons: the Eucharistic communion between the Churches of Antioch and Jerusalem has not been restored; in addition to the Church of Antioch, the Churches of Bulgaria and Serbia refused to participate in the Council; several documents including “Relations of the Orthodox Church with the rest of the Christian World” contain dogmatic, canonical and terminological inaccuracies and require a serious review; the Church of Antioch did not sign the 2016 Resolution of the Primates of Churches whereby it was decided to convene a Pan-Orthodox Council and she did not sign the Council’s Working Procedure either due to the fact that this document cannot be considered approved; the established Secretariat of the Council has proved to be non-functional since it has not been given the right to make decisions, etc.

After that a discussion took place. As is noted in the official report, “In spite of different opinions, the basic position was manifested in that it is possible to solve the existing problems through active work. Therefore, we together with other Churches also ask to postpone the Council until the general unity is achieved”.

It is to be hoped that all these issues may be resolved promptly and that the long-awaited Great Council of all Patriarchates of the Church may occur soon.

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The World Congress of Families is a US-based non-denominational NGO, with the mission:

 to help secure the foundations of society by uniting and empowering leaders worldwide to respect, protect, and defend:

  • the natural family founded on marriage between a man and a woman;
  • parental rights and the welfare of children, including their need for both a mother and a father;
  • the dignity and sanctity of all human life from conception; and
  • freedom of speech, religion, and conscience in an atmosphere of respect for all.

The tenth World Congress of Families meeting will be held in Tbilisi this May, with the attendance of and keynote address by His Holiness Patriarch Ilia.

The organisers recently were interviewed on Ancient Faith Radio; it can be listened to here.

A list of the speakers is provided here ; it includes Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholics, and Protestants in equal measure from around the world. The programme can be found here.

Georgia faces rather different family-related challenges to Europe and the USA. Legal recognition of same-sex marriage in Georgia would be political suicide for any political party proposing it in such a conservative society, and this is unlikely to be an issue for a very long time. We do however face terrible demographic problems, with an ageing population and a fertility rate below replacement, neither of which are conducive to a prosperous economy and a dignified and comfortable life for our citizens. Emigration due to a weak domestic economy is part of the problem, but abortion also is a major problem for Georgia’s population dynamics. Abortions prompted by difficult family economic conditions are very common, and the loathsome practice of sex-selective abortions if the foetus is female is rife. The rather low status of women in traditional Georgian society needs to be aggressively challenged if this vile practice is to be eliminated, and the Church must play its part in popularising a “Daughters are Great!” campaign. When Georgian parents universally understand that their daughters can be professionally successful, bring honour upon the family and support them in old age, substantial progress in abolishing this practice can be made.

For our friends from abroad, Georgia is a very safe and peaceful country with warm and hospitable people, and recent clashes in Nagorno-Karabagh between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces to the distant south have no impact here. If you are considering attending the Congress, I would encourage you to make the trip and enjoy your stay in Georgia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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