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
"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
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,
"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
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
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
> 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
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."
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