Georgian Parliament Passes Bill on Legal Status of Religious Minorities

Patriarch Ilia II, seen here with Catholicos Karekin II, opposed the measure

TBILISI (Combined Sources)—The Georgian parliament Tuesday amended the civil code allowing religious minorities in Georgia to be registered as legal entities, reported the Civil Georgia online news agency.

This came after the introduction of a bill Friday granting five religious minorities—the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Roman Catholic Church, the Evangelical Baptist Church as well as the Muslim and Jewish communities in Georgia—legal status. It was determined that parliament would vote on the matter after a second and final reading, which happened Tuesday, with extensive amendments to the original bill.

On Monday, Patriarch of All Georgians, Ilia II, in a written statement, urged parliament to not adopt the resolution.

“We think it is necessary to stop the procedure of adopting the law –the second and the third hearings and to hold public debates on the issue, at least live television debates, to establish common public opinion and achieve consensus with the Orthodox Church, as majority of the country’s population are Orthodox Christians,” a statement by Ilia II was quoted by the Georgian Interpressnews.ge agency as saying.

“We remind our citizens that the issues are of utmost importance, as it determines the main principles of forming the state,” Ilia II’s statement continued.

“The Church has never been against and has always been supportive of giving status to other religions in Georgia and their rights, but the government didn’t set up a state commission to study the issue,” the patriarch’s statement added.

Evidently, the patriarch’s statement did have an impact on the final bill that was approved. Among the several amendments are the exclusion of the names of the five religious minorities while keeping a formulation that those religious groups will be given the legal status, which have “historic ties to Georgia.” The bill also says that it will be up to a religious group to decide whether it wants to be registered as a private entity or as a legal entity under public law.

Another contention by the patriarch was that the status of Georgian churches in other countries was not addressed in the legislation, prompting him to oppose the measure.

During a visit last by His Holiness Karekin II, Catholicos of All Armenians to Georgia, the two church leaders were not able to reach an agreement on the status of the Armenian Church.

The Georgian Orthodox Church claims ownership of several medieval churches in Armenia, particularly in the province of Lori in northern Armenia, bordering Georgia, including one in the village of Akhtala.

The Armenian Diocese of Georgia welcomed the parliament’s efforts. In an interview with RFE/RL’s Armenian Service on Monday, prior to the passage of the final bill, Georgian Primate Bishop Vazgen Mirzakhanian described such an approach of the Georgian authorities is one “typical of democratic countries.”

According to Bishop Mirzakhanian, while the Armenian Church’s de facto presence in Georgia had been acknowledged by this South Caucasus state’s authorities, clergy and society also in the past, the final adoption of the amendment will provide opportunities for registration and a gradual acquisition of ownership rights in regards to churches currently belonging to Georgia’s Ministry of Culture.

According to Georgian deputy foreign minister, Nino Galandze, said the issue was part of the agenda of talks held last week in Tbilisi between Georgian officials and Armenia’s Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian.

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