On November 18, US Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo met with the Patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Ilia II. The Secretary of State named freedom of religion as one of the main issues to be discussed during his travel in Europe and the Middle East. Freedom of religion and belief was also the main purpose of the meeting with Patriarch Ilia II.
The information published after the meeting by the Georgian Patriarchate states: “It was said that Georgia and the Georgian Church have always been tolerant of traditional religions and this is still the case today. Therefore, the idea of freedom of religion is not unusual to us.”
The stance of the Patriarchate to talk about tolerance in the context of “traditional religions” is alarming. Georgian legislation does not divide religious groups as traditional, non-traditional, or into any other categories. The constitution of Georgia protects the freedom of religion and belief for all, regardless of their religious belonging. It is unclear, who is referred to as “traditional religions”, but as the statement makes it clear, the Georgian Patriarchate recognizes tolerance and freedom of religion for only part of religious communities.
Intolerance and discrimination against non-Georgian Orthodox religious groups is a systemic problem in Georgia. Such attitudes are disseminated by the members of society, the state, or the representatives of the Orthodox Church itself. Religious minorities are still subject to systematic discrimination, have been unable to return the historical property, come across artificial obstacles while attempting to build new places of worship, the intolerance in the educational institutions also has frequent character, individuals have not been held accountable for the hate crimes committed on the ground of religion, etc.
Considering the above-mentioned, the statement made at the high-level meeting by an influential religious institution, according to which, it tolerates only the particular part of religious organizations, may fuel further intolerance and contribute to the categorization and hierarchization of religious organizations.
Furthermore, if the Patriarchate views for example the Armenian Apostolic or Catholic Churches as “traditional religions”, it should also be noted that part of the historical temples that were confiscated from the above-mentioned religious organizations by the Soviet totalitarian regime have been appropriated by the GOC Patriarchate after Georgia regained its independence. The said practice clearly does not serve as an example of tolerance.
It is disappointing, that when meeting Georgia’s key strategic partner - the US Secretary of State to discuss freedom of religion issues, the Georgian Orthodox Church Patriarchate chose to speak about religious communities in the discriminatory context.