Religious Minorities and Covid-19 in Georgia: challenges for equal treatment6 min read
The Covid-19 pandemic has been a great challenge for Georgia, not only in terms of economic issues or the sustainability of the health care system but also in terms of proving that all peaceful societal groups, be they religious, ethnic, or other, are equally important to the state. During the pandemic, the issue of unequal treatment by the state toward the Orthodox Church and religious minorities has been repeatedly raised. Despite the restrictions imposed by the state during the pandemic, the Orthodox Church was granted some privileges that were notably absent for minorities.
More than 80 percent of Georgia’s population is Orthodox Christian. Adherents to Islam make up 10 percent of Georgia. This is followed by adherents to Armenian Apostolic Christianity, Judaism, Yezidism, and other Christian denominations. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Georgian Orthodox Church gained legal and ideological recognition by the state. Even though Georgia is a constitutionally secular state, in 2002, a Constitutional Agreement (Concordat) was signed between the state and Georgian Orthodox Church granting special status and privileges to the church. After the Rose Revolution in 2003, the state adopted the policy of civic nationalism. The state started protecting the rights of non-dominant religious groups and this policy is still in effect; however, the Georgian Orthodox Church maintains a privileged position.
A privileged church
Since 2002, the budget allocated by the state to the church has grown considerably. In 2002, the church received 857,600 Gel; for 2008 it increased to 12,933,400 Gel and in 2013 it reached 25,000,000 Gel per year. The explanation of the funding allocated to the church by the state is that, according to the Concordat, it takes the responsibility to partially compensate the material loss experienced by the church in the 19th and 20th centuries. The amount of damage has not yet officially been determined. Opponents of this agreement usually proclaim that this is unfair as other religious groups also experienced material losses during the Soviet rule yet do not receive such extra financial compensation.
In 2014 the state started to fund four religious minorities: Islamic, Jewish, Roman Catholic, and Armenian Apostolic Christian groups. In 2014-2016, the total amount allocated to them per year ranged from 1.750.000 to 4.5 million Gel. The funding is determined according to the three kinds of data: the number of parishioners, clergy members, and religious buildings. It is impossible to relate these criteria to the damage caused during the Soviet regime, as none of them take into account the extent of the damage or the mechanisms for determining it.
In 2016, non-governmental organizations like The Human Rights Education and Monitoring Center and the Tolerance and Diversity Institute released a study showing that the Orthodox Church receives a significantly bigger amount of state funding than other religious groups. A large part of this funding is spent on salaries, bonuses, and similar purposes for the Orthodox Church staff.
From time to time, the church receives other benefits. In 2020, a bill was initiated which allows Orthodox churches to gain ownership over 20 hectares of forest territory surrounding churches and monasteries. This initiative was assessed as discriminatory by religious minority groups as well as environmentalists, as they believe that any issue, which greatly distinguishes one religious group, already carries a discriminatory character. The exclusive privileges of the Orthodox Church violate the principles of secularism. As Georgia aims to become a strong democratic state, a secular approach mustn’t remain only on paper.
Covid-19 and challenges to equal treatment
Covid-19 has influenced the government’s policy toward religious minorities. Georgia imposed harsh restrictions and went into its first lockdown in March 2020 to stamp out the pandemic. To comply with the new regulations, several minority religious denominations in Georgia changed the rules of service. For example, the Evangelical-Baptist Church changed the rule of the holy sacrament and later stopped gatherings. Georgian Muslims completely stopped daily prayers in mosques across the country.
Simultaneously, the Georgian Orthodox Church refused to change their potentially dangerous practices including receiving the sacrament from the same communal spoon. It was clear from the beginning of the pandemic that the Orthodox Church would be a major challenge for the government to spread the restrictions equally to all groups in society.
The challenge became a polemic after the church announced it would celebrate Easter in April 2020 without changing major practices, including the rule of receiving the sacrament. Easter is one of the most important religious holidays in Georgia. Traditional celebrations include large crowds gathering in the church at midnight, attending the service, and receiving the holy sacrament at the end. Health specialists were claiming that it could be dangerous to let large crowds gather and receive the sacrament from the same spoon. However, the government decided to allow the church to celebrate Easter traditionally. Everyone else was living under the lockdown rules and curfew.
Even though the gatherings during Easter did not lead to a significant spike in cases, as the virus was not circulating massively in Georgia during the spring, these events were assessed as the demonstration of the state’s policy, which puts the Georgian Orthodox Church in a superior position to the other groups of society.
The Orthodox Church was also privileged during Christmas. Due to the massive spread of the virus, harsh restrictions were imposed at the end of November 2020. However, the government lifted the curfew on New Year’s and again on January 7, 2021, for Orthodox Christmas. No such exceptions were made for other Christian denominations, which celebrate Christmas on 25 December.
Representatives of religious minorities claim that the government’s approach has been disappointing and a clear example that the state perceives them as “secondary citizens.” The government justified its decision with the fact that more people celebrate Christmas on 7 January. Others, who celebrate Christmas on December 25 could ask for the permits to move at night if they wished. This argument was not sufficient for the representatives of religious minorities. They claimed that even if their churches were also open to the public, the parishioners would not gather anyway, as they had a recommendation to stay at home. However, this did not reduce the inconvenience, that the state was telling them that as they were few in numbers, they had to request permits to move during the night, while large crowds were allowed to do it without restrictions during Orthodox Christmas.
Time and time again the Orthodox Church in Georgia is disproportionally privileged. For a constitutionally secular state with multiple religious minority groups, this is particularly problematic. This requires special attention, especially in a country that is working to gain its place among democratic states, where all citizens and societal groups should have equal rights and be treated equally by the state regardless of their religion.