Fati Mamiashvili

Opposition parties in Georgia have seized on tensions between the
government and the influential Orthodox church, and are using the
split as an opportunity to attack President Mikhail Saakashvili.

The dispute took off on July 5 when parliament passed legislation
that allow any faith community to register for an organisational
status previously exclusive to the Orthodox Church.

Georgia's western allies have long been demanded equal rights for
all religions.

The ancient Georgian Orthodox Church is the country's dominant faith,
with more than 80 per cent of the population describing themselves
as adherents.

The legislative changes merely allow other faith groups to apply for
recognition as legal entities rather than as non-governments. But they
were enough to provoke several thousand people to gather in central
Tbilisi on July 9 and 10 to voice their anger at what they saw as an
attack on their church.

"Now other religions have got legal status. Even without it, they were
demanding to be given some Georgian churches, so in future they'll
probably be given them," one of the demonstrators, Lamara Gogua, said.

"This is a measure directed against Orthodoxy, and I cannot remain

The church's ruling Patriarchate gave a guarded response, urging
people to remain calm "despite the presence of reasons for alarm".

The church synod, meanwhile, issued a statement asking political
leaders to consult the Patriarchate in advance of any future decisions
of this kind.

The head of the church, Patriarch Ilia II, enjoys more public trust
than any political figure in Georgia, surveys show.

Father Daniel, Metropolitan or bishop of Chiatura and Sachkhere, said,
"We must definitely say what we have to say, we must definitely make
the authorities understand what we are saying, and we must believe
that they will pay heed," the metropolitan said.

Opposition leaders, who have been struggling to capitalise on
Saakashvili's unpopularity over recent months, seized this opportunity,
demanding that the president exercise his powers to veto the changes
and stand up for the Georgian church. (See Georgian Voters Wary of
All Parties on the opposition.)

"The president must use his veto on this initiative, which was
discussed behind the patriarch's back," Irakli Alasania, leader of
the Our Georgia - Free Democrats party, said.

Levan Vepkhvadze, a Christian Democrat member of parliament, went
further on the offensive.

"We're under no illusion that this decision was drafted and pushed
through without the approval or permission of the Georgia president.

So we will not ask him to veto it, as we are not that na´ve,"
Vepkhvadze said.

"Passing this law in an unprecedentedly short space of time, without
considering the views of the patriarch or the public, is a dangerous
step for a state to take."

Faced with such a heated response, and the danger of being outflanked
by the opposition, the authorities were forced to restate their
loyalty to the church.

The speaker of parliament, David Bakradze, was quick to remind
everyone that in 2002, legislators awarded special status to the
Orthodox Church.

He said all that had happened now was that other faith groups had
been granted rights to apply for the same "legal entity" status
as was currently held by institutions ranging from kindergartens
to universities and clinics. Meanwhile, "the only legal entity with
constitutional status in this country is the Georgian Orthodox Church",
he said.

Saakashvili's spokesperson Manana Manjgaladze also sought to calm the
tensions, saying, "The Georgian state would never take any step that
ran contrary to its relationship with the Georgian Orthodox Church".

None of this was enough to dispel the angry mood, and opponents
of the changes vastly outnumbered supporters in media and internet
discussions. In a Facebook poll, more than 90 per cent of the 11,000
people who responded said they were against the changes.

Analysts say the level of outrage is likely to damage Saakashvili.

"It's a really delicate issue, and the more politicians steer clear
of it the better," Giorgi Khukhashvili, head of the Centre for Civic
Projects, said. "Political interference in these matters can only do
harm and spoil the current atmosphere of tolerance."

Paata Zakareishvili, director of the Institute for Nationalism and
Conflict Studies, pointed out that the changes to the law could win the
authorities a few more friends among Georgia's various minority groups.

Some 6.5 per cent of the country's inhabitants are Armenians with
their own unique Christian church, and 5.7 per cent are Muslim
Azerbaijanis. (See also Concerns Over Anti-Muslim Discrimination in
Georgia.) "The government's negative rating among the electorate has
already peaked - it could not deteriorate any further," Zakareishvili

"This decision could even help raise its approval rating among ethnic
and religious minorities."

Fati Mamiashvili is a freelance journalist in Georgia.

The article is published by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting