Monday, December 4, 2023

Violence in the name of God

Georgian ultra-nationalists stand in front of the country's parliament in Tbilisi. The crowd erected a large Georgian Orthodox cross (seen in the background) near the entrance of the building as part of their protest against events planned for Pride Week.

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On July 5, Georgian far-right activists dispersed the planned Tbilisi Pride week by physically attacking more than 50 people, of which 53 were members of the local and international media. The anti-gay crowd also stormed the offices of Georgia’s LGBT rights organization and the civil movement Shame – all of which was done in the name of God.

In the post-Soviet country, where 83.4% of the population are Orthodox Christians, the counter-rally against Tbilisi Pride and hate-crime motivated actions were not only supported, but also incited by, some Georgian Orthodox Church clerics. One of the Deacons of the Orthodox Church, Father Spyridon, openly called on the demonstrators to use violence.

“Do not say no to violence. Use violence for your homeland, your God, and purity,” Spyridon shouted from the stage on July 5 during a counter rally. Spyridon had earlier called for even more radical forms of violence prior to the events of July 5, saying, “The Georgian Nation has to unite for protecting the teachings of Christ and morality…On the 5th of July, we should break the bones of Sodom’s supporters and smash them. After you have done so, you can come to us, the Church.”

Georgia’s frail 88-year-old patriarch, Ilia II,  released a statement before Pride week, saying the event “violates the rights of most of Georgian society, its freedoms, and choices.” The Church addressed 30 MEPs, who earlier expressed support for the freedom of expression of the LGBT community in Georgia, to abstain from encouraging Tbilisi Pride and called on the Georgian Government to avoid unrest in the society.

After such statements, it did not come as a surprise when right-wing activists tore down the blue and yellow European Union flag from the Georgian Parliament and replaced it with a large Georgian cross. When the EU flag was placed back the next day, the same crowd again removed and burned it, while some of the ultra-nationalist protestors shouted, “gay people should be burned the same way!”

This is not the first time that far-right groups have unleashed violence against Georgia’s gay community. Just over eight years ago, on May 17, 2013, an anti-LGBT rally was held in Tbilisi in connection with the International Day Against Homophobia. Gay rights activists were brutally attacked by thousands of protestors that were led and directed by dozens of Orthodox clerics.

Much like the events that occurred on July 5, the police did nothing to prevent the ultra-nationalists from physically attacking anyone on the street, because the priests told them to stay out of the situation. 

Two days before that particular incident, Ilia II had called for a ban of the Pride rally, saying those who participated in the event were suffering from an “anomaly and disease”. Similar statements come every year in Georgia from the Church, which always blames the LGBT community for the consequences, for “propaganda and popularization of their sinful life on the Georgian society.”

Anti-Western sentiments

Many believe that Tbilisi Pride was a “trigger” used by the Georgian Church to mobilize a certain portion of the Georgian population and to voice its virulently anti-Western sentiments. In a statement issued by the Georgian Patriarchate on July 3, it stressed that by supporting Tbilisi Pride, foreign embassies in Georgia were “exerting pressure” on society and were interfering in Georgia’s public and spiritual life by trying to convince Georgians to support “the propaganda of a perverted way of life”. 

The founder of the Institute for Tolerance and Diversity, Beka Mindiashvili, believes that Orthodoxy in Georgia has gradually moved from the stage of “ideologization” to the stage of “politicization.” Mindiashvili says that the violent events that took place in Tbilisi on July 5, and the removal of the EU flag by the far-right crowd, is essentially a declaration of dominance by pro-Russian forces within Georgia who are using a nationalist and xenophobic narrative as a cover. 

“The Patriarchate said (on July 5): “We are the main political player in our society. We do not obey the rules of liberal democracy or constitutional order, based on human rights,” Mindiashvili told RFE/RL.

Giorgi Tiginashvili, a theologian, believes that the mob was encouraged by the Patriarchate to attack members of the media because journalists, who usually critical of the Orthodox Church’s increasingly powerful role in Georgian politics, are considered to be a defenders of liberal Western values, including the separation of church and state.

“This is an open battle against the Western platform. The actions of the Patriarchate show that the West, Western values, the free world, critical media, and free citizens represent an insurmountable barrier that it cannot tame. It therefore poses a threat to the Church’s capital,” Tiginashvili stressed.

In response to the dozens of attacks on journalists, the Patriarchate labeled the numerous assaults “certain violent incident” and, although it described it as “absolutely inadmissible”, neither the Patriarchate nor Ilia II asked for an investigation to be launched and that the perpetrators should be punished.

The Patriarchate did, however, issue another statement where it tried to distance itself from its previous calls for violence and that if “similar acts” were committed by the clergy, they will be dealt with in the near future. 

The head of the public relations department of the Patriarchate, Andria Jagmaidze, said on the pro-government channel, Imedi TV, that the LGBT community had brought on the violence themselves by “ignoring the position of the population …  The problem arises after the propaganda about their way of life begins.”

After the violent attacks on journalists, the Orthodox Church held an evening service where Shio Mujiri – Ilia II’s locum tenens, a figure who acts essentially as the co-patriarch – addressed a group of parishioners that “the nation will always unite against” Pride Week. 

Georgia is preparing to formally apply for EU membership in 2024. The prerequisites for EU membership, under the Copenhagen Criteria, imply that a candidate country must have stability in its institutions that guarantee democracy, the rule of law, and respect for human rights and minorities.

Georgia was officially granted visa-free travel with the EU in 2017, which created high expectations in the country about the possibility of EU membership and “a return back to the European family”. The savage display of July 5, however, brings up an important question: Will the EU be willing to open its doors to a nation that clearly has failed the test for safeguarding democracy, the freedom of expression and respect for minorities?

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