Saving Georgian Saints From TV Superficiality

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A seemingly harmless television contest to choose the greatest Georgians of all time has set off an unholy conflict over religious values and censorship between the Orthodox church and advocates of media freedom. The dispute has again demonstrated the power and influence of the church in Georgia after complaints from the patriarch caused the country's public broadcaster to suspend screenings of the show to appease pious sentiments.

The concept of using a public vote to create a hit parade of historical heroes was developed by the BBC, where Winston Churchill was the predictable winner. The successful format has since been emulated in many other countries. Last year, Russians chose 13th-century leader Alexander Nevsky as their all-time favorite, with Stalin coming in third.

But the program ran into problems in Georgia because saints were included in the list of choices, alongside kings like David the Builder and artists like Niko Pirosmani. The church demanded that the saints be removed from the list, arguing that spiritual figures shouldn't be competing on a superficial television show. "It's a great sin to use the names of the saints disrespectfully," explained a Georgian religious scholar.

A group of journalism students demonstrated outside the First Channel's studios, urging the public broadcaster to maintain its legally-enshrined independence rather than cowering before the patriarchate -- a rare moment of secular dissent in a country where the church is by far the most respected institution and any criticism of its spiritual leader is widely seen as unacceptable.

In the same way that Georgian opposition parties obeyed the patriarch's call for an end to their hunger-strike last year, First Channel also felt it had to compromise. The public station's governing board suspended broadcasts of the program and offered to change its format so that the final list of "greatest Georgians" would not be ranked by popularity, removing some of the competitive element. One member of the board was unapologetic: "The opinion of the patriarch is more important for me than the law," he declared.

But the compromise hasn't defused the controversy. Religious hard-liners were collecting signatures last week to "protect our saints" by removing them from the competition entirely. A friend who refused to sign the petition because she thought media freedom should be upheld was verbally abused by the campaigning Christians. It was another reminder that in Georgia, crossing the church is a shortcut to trouble.

Matthew Collin is a journalist in Tbilisi.