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Rising church asserts itself in Georgia after Orthodox Christian protesters attack gay-rights activists

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  • Bill Samsonoff
    http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/europe/130523/georgia-tbilisi-orthodox-church-gay-rights Nicholas ClaytonMay 24, 2013 06:01 Rising church
    Message 1 of 1 , May 25, 2013

      Nicholas ClaytonMay 24, 2013 06:01
      Rising church asserts itself in Georgia after Orthodox Christian
      protesters attack gay-rights activists

      Anti-gay mobs and opposition arrests are raising concerns about the
      country's direction since a new government took power last year.

      TBILISI, Georgia --- Two dozen stunned pro-gay rights protesters stood
      in a stranger's kitchen last week. Blood streamed down a young woman's
      face where it had been struck by a rock.

      Outside the building, an angry mob was gaining in numbers and ferocity
      as the protesters' outnumbered police escorts frantically debated how to
      evacuate them.

      "All this crowd, like zombies, they simply wanted to kill us. Not beat
      or humiliate, they simply wanted to kill us," said Nino Kharchilava, one
      of the protesters. "At some point, I definitely thought, 'We're going to
      die here, and that's it.'"

      Using their bodies as shields, the police eventually formed a narrow
      corridor through the throng of Orthodox Christian counter-protesters to
      a minibus the police had appropriated for their ad hoc escape plan.

      A widely circulated video
      <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_f4lMuAhORU&feature=player_embedded> shows
      Orthodox protesters accompanied by priests assaulting the minibus,
      breaking windows with rocks and fists and trying to drag the terrified
      activists out as the van slowly made its way through the crowd.

      The confrontation took place on International Day Against Homophobia
      (IDAHO), when Kharchilava and her fellow activists were headed toward a
      small rally in the center of the Georgian capital. They were
      representing the Women's Initiatives Supporting Group (WISG), an NGO
      that promotes gender education.

      Tens of thousands of anti-gay protesters organized by priests thwarted
      the demonstration by breaking through police lines and chasing the

      Twenty-eight people were injured in the incident, which drew
      condemnation from human rights organizations and Western embassies.

      The chaotic display has set the stage for an unpopular standoff between
      the highly influential church and the government of billionaire Bidzina
      Ivanishvili, who became prime minister after his Georgian Dream
      coalition won parliamentary elections last October.

      That's helped raise concerns about the country's direction months before
      a looming presidential election in October.

      Some believe the confrontation may have prompted the government to
      divert attention this week by arresting the head of the main opposition
      party, a close ally of outgoing President Mikheil Saakashvili,
      Ivanishvili's bitter rival.

      That would not be nearly enough. The leader of the Georgian Orthodox
      Church, Patriarch Ilia II, is the country's most popular public figure
      by far with an approval rating of 92 percent, according to a recent survey.

      Many Georgians see the Orthodox faith as central to the identity of a
      nation still emerging from 70 years of communist rule. Ilia II is
      particularly revered for having presided over a sweeping rebirth of
      Christianity since the Soviet collapse in 1991.

      Irakli Vacharadze, executive director of the LGBT rights group Identoba,
      which organized the IDAHO demonstration, said the church's power was
      made clear during the police preparations for the event.

      Although his organization coordinated security arrangements with the
      authorities weeks in advance, police failed to arrive with batons and
      other crowd-control equipment on the day of the protest.

      Videos of the demonstration later revealed priests commanding officers
      to step aside. It wasn't a matter of protesters breaking through,
      Vacharadze said, but rather of the police "opening the gates."

      Cory Welt, a Georgia expert at George Washington University, says the
      government faces a dilemma because punishing protesters --- including
      priests --- "could compromise the government's legitimacy among a large
      segment of the population."

      Ivanishvili has condemned the attacks, saying that being a member of the
      clergy will provide "no alibi" for committing violence on May 17. Six
      people, including two priests, have been charged with small offenses,
      however many question whether the government will have the stomach to do

      Although surveys show homophobic attitudes run deep in the Georgia, WISG
      director Ekaterine Aghdgomelashvili say the counter-protest would have
      never reached its scale and intensity without the church's mobilization
      efforts. Its action was more a power play than a protest against policy,
      she says.

      "This was not a demonstration against LGBT people," she said. "This was
      the Georgian Orthodox Church showing its power to the new government. We
      were just the pretext."

      But the church isn't the only concern for those worried about the
      country's future.

      On Tuesday, prosecutors announced the arrest of Vano Merabishvili, head
      of Georgia's United National Movement Party and a key figure in the
      previous government. He and another former minister were charged with
      funneling state money to their party's campaign.

      A polarizing figure who long headed the police as the country's interior
      minister, Merabishvili presided over a radical but effective reform of a
      notoriously corrupt force. He was also accused of abuse of office,
      cover-ups and mass surveillance of opposition politicians.

      Joao Soares, chairman of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization
      for Security and Cooperation in Europe
      <http://www.globalpost.com/internal/section-config/europe>, criticized
      the arrest, saying in a statement that "putting your political opponents
      behind bars will not help solve any problems, on the contrary, it will
      create new ones."

      Merabishvili's arrest is the latest and highest-profile in a series of
      detentions of officials from the previous regime. With the government
      conducting an investigation into the country's brief war with Russia
      <http://www.globalpost.com/internal/section-config/russia> in 2008,
      there's speculation Saakashvili may be next.

      He remains highly popular in Western capitals for leading the Rose
      Revolution in 2003 that toppled the country's corrupt post-Soviet
      government. He has combated low-level corruption and kickstarted the
      once-moribund economy with liberal reforms. But he's also been
      criticized for authoritarian tendencies and missteps connected to the
      2008 war.

      Columbia University's Lincoln Mitchell, who published two books about
      Saakashvili's administration, says crony capitalism and the bending of
      laws in favor of the ruling party have broadly tainted the government.

      "On the one hand, of course [Merabishvili] probably committed crimes
      that would land him with jail time if those crimes were prosecuted," he
      said. "On the other hand, at one point does it stop making sense to keep
      arresting high-level people?"

      Georgia's beleaguered LGBT activists believe Merabishvili's arrest is a
      distraction from a greater threat to the country. Since the
      demonstration, random attacks against people suspected of being gay have
      spiked, Aghdgomelashvili says.

      Vacharadze says Georgia's greatest danger is that "the secular state is
      under threat." He points to sermons since the rally by priests who have
      announced it immoral for women to swim in the sea and sunbathe. He
      believes other social groups will soon be targeted.

      Although a Facebook page for a Friday rally called "No to Theocracy" has
      gathered more than 2,000 RSVPs, he says that "the church is victorious
      and searching for more power."

      [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
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