The conservative and sometimes reactionary tendencies of the Orthodox Church in post-socialist countries are not news, but recently the Georgian church has gone so far as to target civil society actors doing charity work. As the cold winter approaches, civil society actors, particularly a group of independent feminists held a small rally a month ago to remind the government and Tbilisi City Hall that there are no solutions for the homeless, many of whom were found on the streets frozen to death during past winters. According to Georgia’s Public Defender’s office, local municipalities have failed to resolve even one of the 7,657 applications from homeless families asking for help. As a result, a small NGO called Identoba, working mainly on LGBT rights in Georgia, has put forward an initiative to make a shelter for the homeless. The initiative arose from the concern of a single citizen who approached Identoba, offering the use of her 80 sq. m. flat as a shelter. In response, Identoba started raising funds for renovating the space, gathering volunteers and mobilizing other civil society actors to establish a shelter primarily aimed at homeless families with children.
However, for this article, the most important story about the initiative was the responses it triggered, and the way these responses terminated the initiative. Representatives of the Georgian Church condemned the initiative, arguing that LGBT organizations are not fit for organizing shelter space, especially if children are involved. Similarly, the Minister of Health, Labor and Social Affairs declared that making a shelter for children in a privately owned house violated two international conventions, clearly ignoring the fact that the initiative was not aimed at creating a child shelter but a shelter for homeless families.
It is not a surprise for the church and the government to be so homophobic. The scary part is that the church, as well as the government, finds it more important to take stance against ‘deviant sexuality’ than helping the homeless. Moreover, in a context where none of these actors are doing remotely enough to help marginalized members of Georgian society, they only find enough ‘courage’ to stand in the way of an initiative with humanitarian aims. To my best understanding this not only implies their insensitivity towards social problems but also their perception of what the ‘electorate’ or ‘church followers’ are concerned with. It seems the church clearly expects that fighting ‘gays’ is more important for its followers than fighting poverty and homelessness. While government representatives are less explicitly against the initiative, their targeting of childcare concerns can be read as calming the electorate down by reassuring them that no ‘perverted gays’ will be involved in raising children without the government controlling the process.
While, unfortunately, the church and the government think that their constituencies are more worried about a ‘gay threat’ than the threat of children freezing in the streets, they forget that:
- According to official statistics 40 percent of households are below the national poverty line;
- 35 percent of Georgia’s population is poor according to the 2$ a day poverty measure, the highest poverty rate found in former socialist and Soviet states as of 2012;
- Inequality is also the highest (GINI index score reaching 42) in the region, outscoring some of the most unequal, resource rich neighboring states;
- 25-30 percent of Georgia’s population is undernourished (according to WFP) while nowhere in the region is the rate higher than 5 percent;
- Up to 300 infants die due to malnutrition yearly.
A government that cannot guarantee children the right to live, cannot truly be concerned with standards for bringing children up. Similarly priests, who drive around in luxury jeeps wearing weighty golden crosses around their necks, have no problem preaching to society about morality and the necessity to defend future generations against perversion.
The question remains, have these actors forgotten the above facts? Are they simply ignorant and unaware? Or are they truly concerned with the standards or morality they claim to defend? It seems to me, that they are not simply delegitimizing civic initiatives because they think the ‘gay threat’ is more important, but they are intentionally using anti-gay rhetoric to redirect social concerns from poverty to other social cleavages. From this perspective, they are not simply ‘forgetting’ about social reality, but are seeking to denounce those initiatives that highlight their own incapacity to adequately address pressing social problems.
Worst of all, it seems that the church and politicians are not mistaken in their attempts to kill ‘competition’ from civil society groups, who remain a consistent reminder of their unfulfilled responsibilities. After the church made strong statements against the shelter, church followers publically expressed threatening statements, asserting that they will not allow the establishment of the shelter. On 17May 2013, the church mobilized up to 40,000 persons against a rally held by Identoba. The Georgian state was hardly able (if willing) to protect the LGBT activists from the violence. The threat from the church’s followers was perceived as serious, not only by Identoba, but also by other actors involved in the initiative. After these threats, the future neighbors of the shelter, collectively asked Identoba to refrain from opening it for fear of possible violence.
To understand how the Georgian Church came to control charity work in the country, the role of the Church in Georgian politics needs to be outlined. The aggressive modernization agenda of president Saakashvili’s post-revolutionary government was based on socially exclusive policies, which have contributed to rising poverty and inequality in the country. In a context where the opposition was suppressed for years, the church appeared to be best positioned to absorb popular dissatisfaction with Saakashvili’s liberal policies over the past decade. The church, has successfully played mobilized exclusive identity politics, not only targeting LGBT movements but also ethnic and religious minorities, coopting discontent with the influence of the ‘West’ by offering the public a defense of ‘traditional values.’ It has become a reactionary political player, playing a similar role to radical rightwing movements in Eastern Europe, though enjoying more popular support (about 95% percent of the population expresses high trust in the church according to polls). The similarity lies not only in the tendency towards profiling anyone who is not ethnic Georgian Orthodox as ‘outcasts,’ ’deviants,’ ‘non Georgians,’ and ‘threats to the nation’ (including ethnic Georgian Muslims) but also to “take justice in one’s own hands” if it is not done by the state. Thus the church and its violent followers now pose a real, physical threat to groups and persons that they declare a ‘threat.’
The church saw the defeat of Saakashvili in 2012 as a victory over alien values, and since then has more actively sought to influence every part of social and political life. Moreover, because many church members helped the Georgian Dream Coalition, currently in government, during the elections, it now expects that the government ‘reciprocate,’ threatening the government with its demonstrated capacity to mobilize large segments of the population around basically any cause and against any existing political power.
As for the current government, its fear of the church is one reason it has allowed the church to dominate the public sphere, failing to punish priests and their followers for violent behavior. The second reason, however, is that in spite of increased efforts to build a more socially responsible state, the government is clearly unable to meet the electorate’s socio-economic expectations. Thus, it is easier for the government to mobilize support with the help of the church and its exclusive identity politics. It is unclear if the government understands that the cost of this choice – undermining the rule of law, violating human rights, and maintaining social insecurity – is ultimately undermining its own political power.
Despite these alarming developments, I believe this story also has a positive side. The radicalized church is claiming small victories though surely at the expense of a compromised reputation. The vast majority of civil society actors, including the Public Defender’s Office, are very vocal against the church’s interventions and irresponsible reactions by the government. The government, even if unable to limit church power, unlike its predecessor has refrained from attempting to silence civil society actors. Hence, the voices of the dissatisfied are being heard. And most importantly, all this hustle has certainly brought the issue of homelessness onto the public agenda. I can only hope that it will not disappear out of the sight, just as it has been absent for all of the past 20 years.