Living in Georgia as a guest, I am often asked about religion. And when I say that I am not a believer, people roll their eyes and gasp in horror. The locals feel sorry for me, because I will not go to heaven. They wonder, how I know how to behave, without rules from The Book. I have been cursed to hell, compared to Stalin, and, while hitch-hiking, a driver almost threw me out of his car, when I said that I don´t belong to any church.
According to the Caucasus Barometer 2013, 82% of Georgians belong to the Georgian Orthodox Church, the second biggest religion being Islam with 10 %. Only 1% of over 2100 respondents admitted not being religious. Georgia is one of the oldest Christian countries in the world, with historical evidence of Christianity from as far as 4th century A.D. The tradition is old, strong and not showing any signs of resignation.
This means, that the Orthodox church controls Georgians everyday life in all of its aspects. And it also has a say on issues such as abortions, sexual orientation or gender equality – things that are controversial even in less religious countries. Here, even more so. Things that are not in accordance with traditions are condemned. The discussion stays on the surface until the church changes its mind. In most cases, it doesn´t happen.
In addition, the church seems to have taken a role as censors of free speech. The latest example being making death threats to members of Identoba, a Georgian organization of LGBT activism, for criticizing The Patriarch’s Christmas speech. Needless to say that the local media does not find it important enough to include it to their news sites. At the same time, politicians claim Georgia to be a land of free speech and no religious fanaticism.
Don´t get me wrong – I don´t think everyone who follows the orthodox religion is a fanatic. I can understand the need for a god, a certain something to depend on when times are difficult and someone to thank for good things. Also in Georgia, the unstable situation, conflicts with Russia over Abkhazia and South-Ossetia make people look for something to believe in. Religion gives people this certain something as well as opportunity to carry on the traditions and culture of their ancestors. In a way, religion gives you a measure of ethics for judging your own actions as well as those of others. When society shares these values and measures, there will be less conflicts and misunderstandings. Less hate.
Perhaps this is the reason why people from other religious backgrounds are looked down on. And in Georgia, the religious minorities are not perceived well at all. For example, the Muslim community in Ajara region has been hoping to build a new, bigger mosque to Batumi for over ten years and only last year, finally, they got a permission for it. And then the permission was taken away and granted again, as if the right to practice your religion is something that a person of a different faith has a right to decide upon. There have been numerous attacks on Jehovah´s witnesses, practitioners of other religions, and, I am quite convinced, that also for atheists, Georgia is not the most comfortable country to live in.
In the eyes of law and justice, theoretically, the religious minorities are protected. The constitution states, that a person should not be oppressed in any way because of his or her beliefs. However, Georgian Orthodox Church, unlike other churches here, is independent from state and its laws. And as it will most likely stay like this for a while, there is only one way to live – the orthodox way.
Talvike Mändla is an Estonian graduate with a degree in Special Education. She is currently volunteering on a one-year placement in Zugdidi, Georgia. You can read more of here work on her blog.