In Georgia, State Bows to Church amid Coronavirus Crisis

As Georgian Orthodox Church defies government-imposed restrictions ahead of the Easter festivities, the country braces for further virus fallout.  

Tornike Zurabashvili is former editor of and a fellow at the Eurasia Democratic Security Network (EDSN).

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The Coronavirus crisis proved to be a litmus test for Georgia on many accounts. Not only did it test the battle readiness of Georgia’s healthcare system or the resilience of its economy, it also challenged the integrity of country’s social fabric. And now that the country is approaching the Easter celebrations, the biggest religious event in the Orthodox Christian calendar, the Coronavirus crisis has also endangered the country’s fragile democratic credentials.

Statistically speaking, Georgia has been doing fairly well in the virus fallout. Nearly two months from the first reported case, the figure of infections stands at 370, with a total of three deaths only. While it’s also true that the relatively low number of registered infections could well be linked to the lack of nationwide testing, an apparent failure of the cabinet of Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia, overall,  even the most ardent government critics would admit that the authorities have handled the crisis rather well.

The government’s initial crisis response came at the right time and in adequate proportions, not least because of the advice and dedication of medical professionals. The government put the country’s top epidemiologists in charge of crisis communications, and seems to have done things right in sequencing the restrictions. These efforts won the crisis management effort much needed societal trust. But as Easter approaches, these hard-won achievements look increasingly fragile.

The Georgian Orthodox Church (GOC), the country’s largest religious organization and the most trusted institution, refuses to comply with the state of emergency measures. The Holy Synod, the GOC’s 47-member governing body led by Patriarch Ilia II, openly defied the restrictions, vowing to keep the churches open and religious services running, including the Holy Communion, a ritual involving worshipers sharing sacramental bread and wine with a common communion spoon.

To be fair, the Church adopted some public health recommendations, making effort to limit high concentration of parishioners during services, planning for distancing the parishioners during the services and committing frequent disinfection of icons and crosses which the faithful kiss. But the Patriarchate refrained from asking the parishioners to stay at home, telling them outright that altering the sacramental rites, including the ritual of the Holy Communion, would be understood as “rejection of the Holy Savior.”

Some senior bishops went even further, saying the sacramental wine would protect the parish from contracting the virus or that it would cure those already infected with the disease. Others said the Coronavirus was just an ordinary, seasonal flu or that it would take a toll only on the elderly, “the ones who ought to pass anyways.”

If this raised concerns in the authorities, things were handled mostly behind the closed doors. But without much success – GOC announced that it would not cancel the Easter Sunday liturgy on April 19 that truly troubled the Government of Georgia. The Sunday vigil, which is held overnight between Saturday and Sunday, and which traditionally draws large crowds of parishioners across the country, would see the nighttime curfew violated and would create fertile ground for a violent virus outbreak, something the authorities feared most.

After having tried to appease the Patriarchy, the government now finds itself in a communications fix. Politicians sent mixed messages on the need of finding a “consensus” with the Church, refrained from enforcing restrictions against the clergy, and even bridling the front-line epidemiologists from expressing their reservations bluntly. This has only emboldened the GOC and allowed them to dodge the state of emergency restrictions even in the highly quarantined areas.

What was announced on April 15 as an “agreement” between the GOC and the government is in fact the government’s capitulation to the fait accompli. The GOC would be allowed to hold nighttime liturgy on Easter Sunday despite the curfew, but argues the government, “in strict observance of public health recommendations”. In the meantime, it is clear to all, that the language of compromise will mean – in practice – piecemeal application of formal restrictions, with minimal beneficial impact on restricting the spread of virus.

The government shifted the burden to the parishioners, asking them to do the right thing and “protect our clergy”. Nearly tearful epidemiologists are imploring them to do the right thing and scaring them into staying home – something they previously refrained from doing. In a desperate attempt of the parties unknown, fake quotes started circulating on social media about the “prophesies” of the known clergymen urging the faithful “to erect their church at home” before the test passes over.

The government’s inability to impose its will on GOC during the crisis sent shock-waves across the liberal media and left many in the citizenry in confusion, anger, and despair. And they had all the reason to feel this way. Not only the GOC is scoring an institutional victory over the Government of Georgia, and the whimsical dogma triumphing over rational reason, recent events also speak volumes about the government’s real priorities during the pandemic.

Ever since they came to power in 2012, the Georgian Dream authorities, led by Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire-turned-politician and a self-styled “materialist” (that is, perhaps, a non-believer), have developed amicable relations with the GOC. While the Church has had traditionally close relations with successive Georgian governments, the intensity and the depth of their partnership has never been as high as today. Over the last eight years, the GD authorities have indulged the clerical leaders with generous financial and in-kind donations, as well as with policy concessions on a range of issues, including land sales, sexual minority rights and drug laws. In exchange, they sought the GOC’s electoral endorsement – and successfully so.

This marriage of convenience persists to this day, and is apparently what stopped the authorities from applying the state of emergency restrictions with the same vigor as to other segments of the Georgian population; with October Parliamentary elections looming, the authorities could simply not afford to peeve off the clergy, and reduce the already reduced chances of their electoral victory.

Whether the April 15 “agreement” will lead to a massive outbreak remains to be seen (and we can only hope it does not), but one thing is already clear – in weighing the spiritual (read: political) and healthcare needs, the government made an undoubtedly erroneous choice, both politically and morally.

Yielding to the GOC may have won the sympathies and prayers of hardline believers, but by risking the lives of its citizens, the government has burned the last remaining bridges with the liberal segments of the population and may well alienate the moderate voters, the silent, but decisive majority.

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