It has long been a source of annoyance to some people, local and foreign, that the Georgian government provides funding to the Georgian Church. For those coming from countries with a complete separation between Church and State, such as France or the United States, it is a very unfamiliar situation. For people coming from countries with an official State Church, such as the United Kingdom or Denmark, it is a more familiar situation.
The relationship between Church and State in Georgia is an interesting one. The Republic of Georgia is a secular state without a State Church. Unlike other states, there are no seats in parliament allocated to bishops or other religious leaders (as is the case in the United Kingdom and China). However, the Church has a very large role in people’s lives and State leaders not infrequently canvass the opinion of the Patriarch and bishops when determining policy directions.
In 2002, a Concordat (agreement) was signed between the Georgian State and the Georgian Orthodox Church (more formally known as The Georgian Apostolic Autocephalous Orthodox Church (Georgian:საქართველოს სამოციქულო ავტოკეფალური მართლმადიდებელი ეკლესია,sak’art’velos samots’ik’ulo avt’okep’aluri mart’lmadidebeli eklesia). The terms of this agreement were:
(1) The agreement confirmed that all churches and monasteries on Georgian territory are owned by the Georgian Church, with the exception of those in private hands.
(2) The agreement recognises the special role of the Georgian Church in Georgian history and devolves authority over all religious matters to the Georgian Church.
(3) The agreement grants the Patriarch immunity from prosecution and exempts clergy from the Georgian Church from compulsory military service.
(4) The agreement grants the Georgian Church an exclusive role in operating the military chaplaincy.
(5) The agreement grants the Georgian Church a substantial advisory role in government, particularly in the educational sphere.
(6) The agreement recognises the validity of marriages performed in the Church (while still requiring government registration for legal issues).
(7) As a partial owner of assets confiscated by Soviet authorities during the Soviet rule of Georgia (1921-1991), the State agrees to compensate, at least in part, the Georgian Church for its financial and asset losses incurred during that period.
The seventh point is an interesting one.
The Concordat was agreed in 2002 between His Holiness Patriarch Ilia II and President Eduard Shevardnadze. The President was from a Gurian Bolshevik family with revolutionary credentials, and in addition to having been Foreign Minister of the Soviet Union, he had also been the First Secretary of the Georgian Communist Party (the de facto Head of State of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic (GSSR)). The Party which he had headed had in the past engaged in atrocities and persecution of Georgian Christians, but a mere 11 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and in the immediate aftermath of a brutal civil war, Shevardnadze was not willing to admit substantial responsibility for past misdeeds of his former Party or government.
From the 1990’s to the current day, most of the political and business elite in Georgia were children or close relatives of Communist Party officials, or had developed a power base in the Komsomol ( All-Union Leninist Young Communist League ). During the Soviet era, identifying publicly as an Orthodox Christian had serious consequences; one could not join the Party or Komsomol, admission to universities was almost impossible, and promotion within State bodies was seriously hampered. Hence, when Georgia became independent, very few of the political elite or intelligentsia came from openly practicing Christian families, and many had engaged in discrimination or persecution of Christians during their official duties prior to 1991. Faced with a resurgent Church, the elite needed to make some compromises with the Church, lest their own conduct and the conduct of their families in the past be brought to light. Church and State negotiated the best deal they could realistically get at the time. With the chaos of the 1990’s in such recent memory, the Church also was wary of going after Communists for compensation and justice too vigourously lest the delicate political balance established be upset.
The Bolshevik takeover of Georgia in 1921 was followed by serious persecution of the Church, as mentioned in my posts before, here, and here. Many thousands of clergy were murdered or exiled to labour camps where they died of disease, cold or malnutrition. Tens of thousands of ordinary Orthodox Christian laity likewise were murdered for their faith, or died in prison camps. Hundreds of thousands had their lives and careers ruined by persecution and discrimination by Communist authorities. To date, not one cent of compensation has been paid to the Church for the wrongful deaths of its martyred clergy. Likewise, the families of martyred laity have yet to receive any compensation. As a successor regime to the GSSR, the Government of the Republic of Georgia bears responsibility for achieving justice for those wronged by its predecessor, but to date nobody has had the courage to do so. Given that many of the elite have family members complicit in past atrocities and persecution, this is not surprising.
It is therefore perplexing to Georgian Orthodox Christians when local secularists and foreigners complain about State funding of the Church. A local article disclosing financial transfers from the State Treasury to the Church can be found here . I cannot vouch for the veracity or otherwise of those figures but they appear to be based on valid government records; a total of GEL200 million since independence is suggested. Given that the new Parliament House in Kutaisi alone has cost over GEL325 million since work started in 2012, the Church’s subventions are a rather minor part of State expenditures in comparison.
In 1921, the Georgian Church was the largest single landowner in the country; that land was confiscated and most of it has not been returned. No formal mechanism of restitution for these assets has been settled upon. Seventy years worth of lost revenue from those assets has also not been considered.
Hundreds of temples and monasteries were razed to the ground by the Bolksheviks; State funding for the building of new temples and renovation of old structures is hence an appropriate measure of compensation under the terms of the Concordat. Anyone walking around a temple on Sunday morning in any town or village in Georgia can attest to the overcrowding that is routine, with many hundreds of people often standing in the rain or snow outside for services at Feasts. Hence, State support for such construction activities is a compensation payment rather than a subsidy per se.
Some State funds provided to the Church are dedicated to the Church’s charitable activities, such as its hospitals, orphanages, educational facilities and charitable funds, such as the Lazarus Fund. As the most trusted institution in the country, government officials obviously consider subvention of Church charity work to be a worthwhile use of public funds.
Some Georgian political parties have lobbied for the Concordat to be superseded by the Georgian Church becoming an official State Church and therefore an arm of the State. To date the Patriarch has rejected this concept, saying that he would prefer the existing arrangement to be implemented more fully. No doubt the Church hierarchs are aware that countries with State Churches tend to suffer decreasing levels of religiosity amongst the laity. Likewise, they are aware of the Georgian Church’s forcible incorporation into the Holy Synod of the Church of Russia in the early 19th century, where as an arm of the official State Church they were ruled by Russian civil servants instead of bishops. The experience was not a happy one and clergy are aware that the Church needs a certain level of autonomy from the State to fulfil its mission faithfully. The freedom for clergy to occasionally criticise State policy where appropriate can only be preserved if the Church is not an arm of the State.
Personally, I believe that a one-off property settlement between Church and State would be preferable to ongoing year-by-year subvention, as this would allow the Church to be financially independent of the State and to faithfully fulfil its mission without fear of of State officials cutting off funds when displeased. Other Georgian Orthodox Christians will have opinions very different to mine of course.