Etchmiadzin Welcomes Religious Minorities Law in Georgia

Catholicos Karekin II (left) with Patriarch Ilia II in Georgia last month

YEREVAN (RFE/RL)—The Armenian Apostolic Church has welcomed the decision of state authorities in neighboring Georgia to grant its diocese a legal status.

Amid opposition from Georgian Orthodox Church leadership and some political factions, pro-establishment lawmakers in Tbilisi on Tuesday voted in sped-up second and third reading procedures for the final approval of an amendment to the country’s civil code granting five minority religious groups, including the local Armenian Church, the status of ‘legal entities of public law’.

Other beneficiaries of the amendment that have long sought such a status are the Roman Catholic Church, the Evangelical Baptist Church, as well as the Muslim and Jewish communities.

The amendment to the civil code has been signed into law by President Mikheil Saakashvili despite calls from the opposition to veto it, reported Georgian media, quoting the presidential spokesperson.

Meanwhile, the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin’s chief spokesman Father Vahram Melikian took the move in Georgia in its stride, indicating that it was also the result of arrangements made with the Georgian authorities during last month’s visit of the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church to Georgia.

During that pontifical visit from June 10 to 15, His Holiness Karekin II, Catholicos of All Armenians, met both Patriarch of All Georgia Ilia II and Georgian President Saakashvili.

“It was a process that resulted also from the arrangements made during that pontifical visit… In this sense, it was certainly an expected move. The Georgian authorities initiated it, because the moment was ripe,” said Fr. Vahram Melikian in an interview with RFE/RL’s Armenian Service. He expressed gratitude on behalf of the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin to the Georgian president for “granting the request of His Holiness and giving a solution to the matter.”

The Georgian Orthodox Church continues to oppose the amendment. In a statement released shortly after its passage on Tuesday it said that the responsibility for the negative consequences of the changes lies with the country’s authorities. It warned that the law “contradicted the interests of both the Georgian Church and the State” and that its “negative consequences will become apparent very soon.”

In this regard, Fr. Vahram Melikian expressed his conviction that the kind of position held by the Georgian Orthodox Church is directed against “various religious currents and organizations” rather than the Armenian Apostolic Church.

According to the amendment into Georgia’s civil code, religious groups, which have “historical ties to Georgia” or are defined as religions by legislation in Council of Europe member states can be registered as legal entities of public law.

“It is clear that the [Georgian] Patriarch is concerned about the registration, in the future, of other religious organizations. I think their statements to this effect are prompted by this very concern,” the Etchmiadzin spokesperson said.

One of the main arguments of the Georgian Orthodox Church against the vote on the bill was that such important documents called for extensive public discussions and required a ‘consensus’. It has also indicated that the amendment should have been passed only if similar status were provided to the Georgian Orthodox Church in neighboring countries, with the emphasis reportedly placed on Armenia.

Fr. Vahram Melikian said such statements were unclear to him because, as he insisted, no obstacles had been created for the registration of the Georgian Church in Armenia.

“The Georgian side has repeatedly raised this question, also during His Holiness’s visit to Georgia. In his public speech Catholicos of All Armenians Karekin II stated that the Georgian Church, the Georgian orthodox community have no problem with their registration in Armenia, because the law of the Republic of Armenia offers all conditions and opportunities. For his part, His Holiness also expressed his readiness to assist in the matter of taking all necessary steps for the registration to take place,” the spokesperson underscored.

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