Militant Orthodoxy in Georgia

The Georgian Times reports (link added): 

Live televised debates in Kavkasia TV’s studio between leaders of hardline Orthodox Christian groups and thier opponents grew into a fistfight outside the Tbilisi-based station’s studio late on Friday [7 May] night. 

Young men affiliated with radical group, known as Union of Orthodox Christian Parents, which  has became associated with a newly established People’s Orthodox Christian Movement, verbally and physically assaulted some of Kavkasia TV program’s guests and also some members of the station’s staff, witnesses said. 

…Malkhaz Gulashvili, who founded People’s Orthodox Christian Movement, in March, 2010, told the movement members at an indoor gathering on May 7, that the movement was launching struggle “to set Georgia free of a dictate by Liberty Institute ” – an influential Tbilisi-based think tank with links to the authorities. Gulashvili said Liberty Institute and its affiliates in Ilia State University’s administration were “promoting anti-religious ideology.” 

Malkhaz Gulashvili is a powerful media tycoon in the country.

In particular, complaints have been made about a book entitled Saidumlo Siroba, which translates as Holy Crap, but is derived from the words “Saidumlo Seroba”, the Georgian term for the Last Supper. “Siroba” also recalls the word “dick”. The author is a certain Erekle Deisadze, and the book was launched at the university. The Georgian Times helpfully provides an extract of passages the movement finds offensive: 

“I have often thought of rubbing out my parents. I sucked the tit which my father probably licked during sexual intercourse… I welcome this kind of stuff, like my sister’s secret masturbations, and I am pissing in my pants when I imagine all that… God is a holy product packaged for marketing. The masses, whose consciousness is full of sediment, are ruled by Him. Today this society saturated with snobbery is a mass ready to fight to the last drop of blood to save this product which they have little idea of. Heresy is the only way to experience a mental erection… Do you remember the star shining in the sky over Bethlehem which signaled the birth of Christ? Similar lights appear over McDonalds.  

According to a statement published by the Georgian International Media Centre

On May 4 2010 members of same groups publicly assaulted and verbally harassed representative of Public Defender Beka MIndiashvili, Ilia University Professor Simon Janashia, journalist Ninia Kakabadze, activist Paata Sabelashvili and other persons who gathered in front of Ilia University for defending freedom of expression of one of the authors. Mobs of persons loudly sweared, spat and assaulted a small peaceful gathering of activists. Some activists, like Acho Khachidze were chased and assaulted in the street, ambushed and threatened at their homes. Others, like editor of a weekly magazine Liberal Shorena Shevardashvili were verbally harassed and threatened via electronic mail, social networking websites or at their workplaces. 

That report describes the Orthodox protestors as “neo-Nazis”; this news report makes the same association: 

This was not the first attack on the university by the Union of Orthodox Christian Parents (or Orthodox Parents’ Union); a year ago it claimed that “the Vatican is promoting anti-Orthodox activities at the university”.

The People’s Orthodox Christian Movement appears to have come into existence to capitalise on anti-gay sentiments; Sabelashvili is a gay rights activist, and he has some details

During the winter session of the Parliamentary Assembly of Council of Europe (PACE) the issue of the resolution on “Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity” gave  a push to the controversy in Georgia, thus prompting the leaders of several religious communities to condemn PACE’s intention to address the issue of homophobia.  

This criticism was immediately accelerated by Christian Democrat’s Movement, a political party represented in the Georgian Parliament.  The Party misinterpreted resolution as obligatory instrument for recognizing same sex marriage and parental rights and was able to stir negative PR for the resolution in Georgia. 

Several weeks later, new People’s Orthodox Movement was founded by Mr. Malkhaz Gulashvili, a newspaper publisher known for his close ties with the Russian authorities.  His Moscow ties have frequently put him in a position when he needed to answer pressing questions about his fidelity to Georgian national interests.   

Instead of submitting direct answers, Mr. Gulashvili adopted a strategy to drive away from the discussion by irrelevantly scapegoating lesbians and gays, and calling them perverts and sick.  This has enabled him and his supporters redirect any public discussion from his own agenda.  Mr. Gulashvili has dangerously partaken in into endless and shameless session of insult and defamation of his LGBT co nationals.  He and other members of the movement have been outspoken rather radically, calling on punishing all who are, in his words “against orthodox beliefs and values”.

Several arrests were made following the protest at the TV station, leading to further protests. Gulashvili, meanwhile, has fled to Tskhinvali in South Ossetia, which is currently under Russian control. In an interview with the Georgian Times (which he also owns), he says that: 

…I am protecting my son from the dangerous and unruly people, who act on police orders. After I said on Eka Kvesitadze’s programme that single sex marriage is inadmissible I received several threatening telephone calls at home. Later my wife was stopped in the street by a black jeep, whose occupants put the window down and told my wife that if your husband does not stop they will punish her and her family. Soon after this my son had a car accident. He was crossing the road when a jeep smashed into him. At the time we thought this was an accident, but on 9 May my son was taken away in a car by four men. 

Gulashvili has also claimed that his son was sexually assaulted. He rejects the neo-Nazi accusation: 

Look for yourself at what fascism is and what our programme is and you will not find anything like fascism in our programme. The two-headed eagle is a Byzantine symbol, not a fascist one. Some poor historians who are out to please the Government, like Simon Maskharashvili, say that this symbol belongs to the Russian Empire. I would like to tell him that it is a Georgian symbol, used for this purpose before it became Byzantium’s symbol. It embodies the relationship between the Church and State under a temporal government. 

An article by Giorgi Kvelashvili has some background to the situation: 

Chaired by Malhaz Gulashvili, a Georgian media tycoon and businessman with close Moscow connections, the organization is associated with the Union of Orthodox Parents, itself in existence for several years. The declared goals of the People’s Orthodox Movement are “to cherish Georgia’s Orthodox Christian legacy” and turn the country into a constitutional monarchy. Gulashvili claims that his organization is “apolitical” and has no special relationship with the Georgian Church and Patriarch Ilia II, but nonetheless emphasizes the importance of developing close ties with Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church. Gulashvili is a frequent guest in Moscow and has even presented his book to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev during one of his latest visits to Russia. 

The major targets of the radical organization’s violent rhetoric and actions are President Saakashvili’s government and all liberal political parties, academic and social institutions that have a pro-Western stance and advocate for Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic integration. High on Gulashvili’s agenda is the Liberty Institute, a leading pro-Western Georgian NGO chaired by Levan Ramishvili, that was one of the driving forces behind the Rose Revolution in November 2003 and whose former members are now top officials in the Saakashvili government…. 

An article by Michael Cecire concurs

Gulashvili, who is also the President of the Georgian Times Media Holding and has major connections to Kremlin authorities and their oligarch allies in Moscow and Europe, is also an outspoken critic of Georgia’s current government. 

…Even if the allegation about Gulashvili’s son is true – itself questionable given Gulashvili’s frequent use of hyperbole and homophobic comments – his choice of Tskhinvali as refuge highlights just how close he is to the Kremlin and also underscores not merely dissatisfaction with the current government, but also a general antipathy towards a fully independent Georgia. By any reasonable estimation, it is not unfair to conclude that Gelashvili’s motives, even if they were buoyed by some degree of religiosity, were primarily Moscow-driven. 

…This suggests that Russia’s policy towards Georgia – emphasizing the use of local proxies to destabilize the country and reverse reforms – is continuing apace and likely to build momentum at least through the summer.

The Georgian Orthodox Catholios has now waded into the dispute over Holy Crap, with a predictable intervention; Civil Georgia has the details

Attempts are being made today to redirect all the public attention on the confrontation, which took place in Kavkasia TV, while less is being spoken about the reasons, which triggered this [incident]… Physical confrontation in fact was triggered by moral and psychological violence, expressed through publishing of and direct or indirect support to the book.” 

…the Georgian Church will never support violence, no matter from whom it might be coming. 

…the Church can not support propaganda of immorality, indecency, licentiousness and satanism. Of course we do respect and share democratic values, but it is also a fact that freedom does not mean to have the right for everything. That is why in almost all the traditional European countries freedom of expression and the right to dignity are equally protected. 

…If religious feelings of absolute majority are insulted like this (appealing the court can not compensate degree of moral damage) in the country, which is already in a difficult situation, there is no guarantee that external or internal enemy will not use this situation and through persons like Deisadze will deliberately insult feelings of followers of other religions, which may serve as a reason for civil confrontation, leading to irreparable consequences. 

For that reason we appeal the authorities to give a real assessment to what has happened and to promptly adopt a law, which will appropriately defend population from indecency, defend dignity and religious feelings of the society and of a person. By doing that we will protect peace and welfare of citizens of our country. 

Further

…On May 9 an archpriest with close links to a radical Orthodox Christian group, which was involved in series of confrontations that took place last week in Tbilisi, not only in Kavkasia TV but also outside the Ilia State University, was awarded by Patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Ilia II, on May 9. 

After Sunday sermon in Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in Mtskheta, Ilia II announced that he was awarding archpriest Davit Isakadze with decorated pectoral cross and the right to wear the miter for, as he put it, “his service to welfare of our nation and the Church.”

I blogged on a Georgian priest’s complaints about fundamentalism in the national church here.

The situation seems a close parallel to events in Russia; a January report from the Carnegie Moscow Centre noted that

Patriarch Kirill, elected to head the Church a year ago, is trying to systematize and modernize the Church’s social activities, Knorre reported. Dissatisfied with the scale of work with youth, Patriarch Kirill is creating a parallel system, maximally independent of the clerical hierarchy, of spiritual instructors for youth, the all-Russian public Orthodox movement, built on the Orthodox wing of the pro-Kremlin political youth movement Nashi. 

I last blogged on Nashi here

(Hat tip: Bulldada Newsblog)

6 Responses

  1. also interesting to see exactly the same is happening in Ukraine.

  2. […] By Stephen Smuts Bartholomew’s Notes on Religion has a very interesting report on Militant Orthodoxy in […]

  3. sounds a bit like the “Iron Guards” in inter-war Romania

  4. It is with posts like this that your blog is unique.

    However, on a more frivolous note – is it me, or does that pic look like something from the Flash Gordon movie? Minions of Ming the Merciless?

  5. That’s a photo of a ballet class. I suuôse they’ll soon be taking entire schools hostage so that they can murder a few hundred four year olds!

  6. […] restoration of the monarchy is the militant Orthodox activist Malkhaz Gulashvili, whom I blogged here. However, his appeal to President Saakashvili was an absurdly unattractive pitch; he opined […]

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