The pandemic has affected the world unevenly; Georgia has surprised everyone with its success in fighting the virus.
There are different explanations for this, such as allegations that the true scale and actual statistics are much higher (according to the Johns Hopkins University Map, as of June 29, the country had 926 confirmed cases and 15 deaths). Whatever the true story may be, the first wave appears to be dwindling, providing an opportunity to reflect on the response of important actors and institutions in this southern Caucasus country.
The Georgian Orthodox Church is very influential on a social and political level, since 83.4% of the population is part of it. Suppressed under the Soviet regime, the Church received strong financial support in the form of public funds and restitution of assets, which according to a 2016 local NGO report revealed that it was worth several tens of millions of lari (since then, these financial privileges have been contested by the country's Constitutional Court).
The Orthodox Church imposes a general respect within Georgian society. A study by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and CRRC of Georgia published in January revealed that between November and December 2019, 50% of the population trusted the Church without reservation. However, this indicator has been declining regularly for several years, and the figure reached 64% in July 2019 and was even higher in previous years.
This means that the actions of the Church during the pandemic are particularly worthy of attention. Now some observers are wondering if those actions will further harm the popularity of the church.
Georgia officially recorded its first COVID-19 case on February 26. The first reaction of the Orthodox Church came on March 17, when the clergy sprinkled holy water on the central streets of Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. Archbishop Shalva Kekelia explained that it was a way to ask God for help to protect the country and citizens from the virus. Three days later, the Patriarchate made a statement asking parishioners in poor health to remain isolated from others until their full recovery, and suggested conducting outdoor religious services to prevent large crowds from gathering in small spaces.
As COVID-19 cases increased, Georgia declared a state of emergency on March 21, any assembly of more than 10 people was banned. When asked by On.Ge journalists if the ban also applied to religious services, Prime Minister Georgi Gakharia replied that it “applies to everything and everyone”; There was a public debate about the safety of attending religious services. This prompted the Patriarchate to issue another announcement on March 25 in which it reaffirmed that although the religious services continued, it supported the state's crisis control measures. The statement noted that some media outlets had described the situation in such a way as to suggest that the Church could be blamed for the consequences of the spread of the virus.
In early April, the authorities' attempts to find a common language with the Church and the faithful reached a critical point, with the approach of Palm Sunday and Easter. Gakharia said that he would attend the Easter service on television and that he would stay at home, while Health Minister Ekaterina Tikaradze added that people should pray from home since “God is everywhere” and not only in the temple. .
However, the Orthodox clergy were adamant that the church services would continue, and stressed that they had applied the guidelines for social distancing within the Church. However, he urged parishioners to listen to the sermon through loudspeakers and ordered that the places of worship be disinfected. The Church was less flexible in other rituals: for example, the use of a shared spoon to serve the communion wine during services. “It is completely unacceptable that church members doubt the mystery of the sacrament and demonstrate by their actions how to refuse to share a common spoon as a source of infection,” reads a statement from the church after a Synod meeting on 20 of March.
Giga Bokeria, an opposition politician from the European Georgia Party, reacted to the synod's decision, suggested that the Church should not have expected special treatment and that the restrictions should apply equally to all institutions and to all citizens.
მორწმუნე ადამიანებს, ან მათ ნაწილს უფლება აქვთ, არ სჯეროდეთ მეცნიერების, ან მიიჩნევდნენ, რომ მათი მნიშვნელოვანი რელიგიური რიტუალის დროს მეცნიერება არ მუშაობს, როგორც ახლა გვესმის, თურმე, კოვზით ზიარებისას დაავადება არ გადავა ადამიანებზე, რაც ჩემთვის არის აბსურდი, მაგრამ მათ აქვთ უფლება, რომ ამის სჯეროდეთ. თუმცა ეს უფლება სამოქალაქო სეკულარულ სახელმწიფოში მთავრდება იქ, სადაც იწყება სხვების უსაფრთხოება
Believers, or at least some believers, have the right not to believe in science, or to believe that science does not apply to their important religious rituals as they are understood. For me, it is absurd that by sharing a spoon, the disease is not transmitted to humans, but they have the right to believe it or not. However, in a civil and secular state, this right ends where the safety of others begins.
Therefore, part of Georgian society continued to look at Easter with concern. On March 7, the Georgian theologian and former priest Basil Kobakhidze gave an interview to Pirveli TV, in which he attacked the Patriarchate for “fanaticism” in its approach to COVID-19. Kobakhidze, who lives in France, said the Church had become a “state within a state” and that it would contribute to the spread of the disease. At the same time, he stressed that the country's political elite and high-ranking members of the clergy were in no danger, as they would have no problem receiving medical treatment.
Despite the general closure of the four largest cities in Georgia (Tbilisi, Kutaisi, Batumi and Rustavi) declared by the government on April 15, preparations for a major Easter vigil continued. Tikaradze remarked, with great delicacy, that all members of Georgian society, including the Church and the people, had to share responsibility with the Government to defeat the virus.
Father Shalva Kekelia, a priest of the Transformation Church in the Vake district of Tbilisi, said he would try to erect a temporary structure for parishioners that night that, while measures of social distancing inside would be respected, they were supposed to fit about 2000 people. It would allow the faithful to stay in the temple compound at night to avoid violations of the curfew. Similarly, Metropolitan Iakob de Boobde, one of the Church's most influential clerics, stated in an interview with InterPressNews that the Church had not ordained anyone to attend services and that “Christians should be held accountable for them. themselves. “
In another interview, on April 17, Kobakhdize stated that the Patriarchate's commitment to holding great services constituted a great threat to public health. His words were not only supported by important critics of the Church, but that same day, 13 clergymen signed an open letter in which they declared that they temporarily refused to participate in the liturgy:
ქრისტესთან ჭეშმარიტი ურთიერთობა, მასთან ზიარება მხოლოდ ტაძარში სიარულით არ გამოიხატება. ჩვენ სხვაგვარადაც შევიქნებით ქრისტეს ჭეშმარიტი ტაძარნი, როგორც მისი სხეულის ნაწილნი (ეფ. 5.30) და მის წმიდა სხეულს ჭეშმარიტად თანაზიარნი. ვინც დღეს ეპიდემიის გამო თავს იკავებს ღვთისმსახურებაზე შეკრებისაგან, არათუ ქრისტეს ღალატობს, პირიქით, ცდილობს მოცემულ ვითარებაში აღასრულოს სულიერი ლიტურგია მოყვასის მსახურებისა. მოშიშება ყოველთვის სიმხდალეს არ ნიშნავს, ხანდახან იგი დიდი საქმის საფუძველი ხდება.
True fellowship with Christ is not just attending church. We can create a true temple of Christ in other ways, as participants in his holy body. Those who now abstain from meeting in prayer for the epidemic are not betraying Christ, on the contrary, they are doing everything possible to carry out the spiritual liturgy with the neighbor in mind, given the current situation. Fear is not always synonymous with cowardice: sometimes it can be the basis of great acts.
However, during the period leading up to Easter and Good Friday, the clergy of the Orthodox Church seemed to choose which restrictions to obey. With the confinement in Georgia, the movement of vehicles was prohibited from noon. However, on April 17, the Patriarchate stated that the ban had not been agreed in advance and that clergy, members of parish choirs, and ushers were free to travel by car to attend services.
So the Easter liturgy was celebrated with fewer parishioners than in previous years; and many were relatives of the clergy.
On April 18, hundreds of parishioners across the country attended the services, despite calls from the authorities to stay home. Reuters reports that at Sameba Cathedral in Tbilisi, everyone wore face masks and that they generally respected social distancing. “The virus frightened many,” said Patriarch Ilia II in his Easter speech, and that they had to think of God: “We should not fear temptation, the Christian receives problems with gratitude and sees the hand of God in everything … and at the same time, it tries to find the right solution for the current situation, ”continued the patriarch of the Orthodox Church.
Although there have been several cases of clergy who have tested positive for COVID-19, such as a church worker in Tskneti, outside the capital of Georgia; it is difficult to say whether public prayers were ultimately responsible. On May 5, Tikaradze, Minister of Health, stated that authorities had not yet identified any “church groups” in COVID-19 cases.
The fact that parishioners were infected or may not be irrelevant. For many in Georgia, the Church's reaction to state restrictions by COVID-19 have shown how clergy respect their relations with the state, and wonder if the lessons of the pandemic could provoke a crisis of faith in the role of the Orthodox Church in Georgian society.