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Georgia Ruled Not to Oppress its Armenian and Azeri Citizens

The Georgian parliament in an emergency measure on Tuesday adopted the final version of a legislative amendment to the Civil Code according to which it has become possible to provide legal status to religious associations in Georgia — including the Armenian Apostolic Church.

These amendments, reports the RFE/RL’s Ekho Kavkaza (“Echo of the Caucasus”), have become the subject of heated debates. Opponents to the bill referred to yesterday’s statement by His Holiness and Beatitude Ilia II, Catholicos Patriarch of All Georgia, that the final adoption of the final version of the bill has to be postponed. They are also protesting against the fact that the amendments were  discussed and approved in an accelerated fashion. The first reading took place on Jul. 1 and the amendments were pushed through the second and third readings where they were approved.

International law and Georiga’s Constitution prohibit the state to have such leverage through which it can eliminate religious associations. But, in fact, separate laws make that possible, reports Ekho Kavkaza. Now, religious associations have the right to register as a legal entity of public law.

“I want to emphasize that this is an amendment to the Civil Code. For this reason no religious group will be able to call itself [i.e. become equal to] the Georgian Orthodox Church,” said MP Lasha Tordia, one of the initiators of the bill.

Prior to the start of the session, a group of opposition deputies had asked parliament to halt the bill; however, they were refused.

According to the Catholicos Patriarch of All Georgia, there’s no need to rush, especially since neighboring states have not yet discussed the status of the Georgian church in their countries, as well as the issue of property ownership by Orthodox churches.

Theologian Levan Abashidze considers this approach to be fundamentally wrong. “We’re not talking about citizens of other countries. The same Azeris, the Muslims, or the Christians, the Armenians, are our citizens. And to raise such an issue — let Armenia first accept [the Georgian Church’s] status [in Armenia], then us. It means that we don’t consider this group as our citizens. If Armenia won’t provide status to the [presumably Georgian] Orthodox [church], so we have oppress our citizens?”

“And what does the status of legal entity of public law provide to religious groups?” the Ekho Kavkaza reporter asked Maria Arakelova, press secretary of the Georgian Diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Among other privileges, she noted the following: “For example, if we want to visit a prison, we will no longer need permission from the Georgian Patriarchate. Previously we had to contact the Patriarchate, then the justice ministry, but now we can contact only the justice ministry.”