Saakashvili, Sin and The Georgian Church

Is Halloween anti-Christian and anti-Georgian? That’s what some people were asking here in Tbilisi last week after Georgia’s Orthodox patriarch, Ilia II — the single most-respected figure in the country — called on people to forsake witches’ broomsticks and ghoulish makeup and renounce celebrations of the annual rite. “There are people in Georgia who are trying to bring foreign holidays and attitudes into our country that may ruin our own traditions,” one of the patriarch’s devotees told a local newspaper.

The Halloween debate followed a nationwide scandal over a series of animated videos that appeared to mock the elderly patriarch. In a rare display of political unity, the authorities and opposition both condemned the satirical clips that were digitally manipulated to show the Orthodox leader cussing out Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.

Tea Tutberidze, who works for a pro-government think tank in Tbilisi, first posted the videos on her Facebook page and became the target for the wrath of the faithful. “God will punish you. Your fingers will shrivel up,” one online commentator testified, a remark followed by some distinctly un-Christian threats of violence and murder. The patriarchate claimed that a “dirty campaign” was being waged against the church — a view echoed by opposition politicians who insinuated that Saakashvili was actually behind it all.

Despite the unholy altercation, Tutberidze was unrepentant. She denounced the patriarch for recent comments that seemed to accuse Saakashvili of failing to avert the war with Russia last year, alleged that the Kremlin maintained a “power base” within the religious hierarchy, and insisted that free speech should know no limits.

But in a country where the patriarch has become an increasingly potent and unquestionable figure, criticism of the religious establishment is a fast track to pariah status. The church has shown its political might on several occasions over the past couple of years, halting opposition hunger strikes at Easter last year and forcing a “sinful” television series to suspend broadcasts.

Some urban liberals are worried about the state-backed church’s influence on public life, especially in schools, but they don’t want to express their views as forcefully as the heretical Tutberidze. Although more than 15 percent of the population follows other faiths, most see Orthodox Christianity as an integral part of Georgian identity. Anyone who dares to cross them can expect a rough ride.

Matthew Collin is a journalist based in Tbilisi.