Orthodox Church in Georgia strengthens its political role amidst rivalry with Islam

It is not only in the Muslim world that attempts to legally repress blasphemy or other actions offending the feelings of believers take place. In the strongly Orthodox Christian Republic of Georgia, the commission on human rights of the Parliament has created a working group to draft a law for protecting the feelings of believers, reports Religion & Gesellschaft in Ost und West (June). The Muslim Mufti of East Georgia has supported the project, claiming that religious feelings have been increasingly violated in recent years, and that such a law could prevent religious hate as well as physical violence. But there is also increasing rivalry and conflict between Islam and Christianity, particularly in the autonomous Republic of Adjaria, in the southwestern part of the country. The Constitution of Georgia declares the complete freedom of belief and religion, while recognizing “the special role of the Apostolic Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Georgia in the history of Georgia and its independence from the state” (article 9). Muslims form the largest minority (10.7 percent), with some being Turkish-speaking Azeri mostly following Shia Islam, while Georgian Muslims in Adjaria are Sunni. In another article in the same issue, Oliver Reisner (Ilia University, Tbilisi, Georgia) notes that the Orthodox Church (representing 83.4 percent of the population) enjoys by far the greatest level of confidence in the country compared to other institutions.

Some previous governments attempted to keep more distance from the church, but the current one respects its influence and knows that it might otherwise ally with opponents. The State Agency for Religious Affairs that was created in 2014 is controlled by people close to the Georgian Orthodox Church. Due to their ethnic closeness to Orthodox Georgians, there is a strong drive to convert Adjarian Muslims to Christianity. This has led to a reaction in the form of Islamic revivalism. Reisner describes a culture war going on in the Adjarian mountains, where local Muslims are concentrated, with competing Orthodox Christian and Sunni Muslim schools. Turkish Islamic foundations are also active in the area. Reisner concludes that the strong and independent Orthodox Church, currently dominated by conservative currents, has learned how to become a political actor and to stress the role of Georgian Orthodoxy as a key component of national identity. Since the state is not able to deliver as it should on social and economic issues, it needs the church to gain legitimacy.

(Religion & Gesellschaft in Ost und West, Institut G2W, Birmensdorferstrasse 52, P.O. Box 9329, 8036 Zurich, Switzerland – https://www.g2w.eu/)