Holy Crap, Heresy and Fistfights in Tbilisi

Is Georgia witnessing a rise of religious hooliganism? That’s what some in Tbilisi have been suggesting after a series of clashes between progressive liberals and hardliners from the radical fringes of the Orthodox Church. Arguments about the church’s powerful influence on Georgian society are never less than passionate, but last week they escalated into physical confrontation on the streets of the capital.

The catalyst for the dispute was a provocative new book satirizing the church, the most respected institution in Georgia. Its title is an irreverent play on the Georgian phrase for the Last Supper, which can also be interpreted as “Holy Crap.” Orthodox activists held a demonstration calling for a ban on the book. Liberals responded with their own small protest for freedom of expression. But as soon as they gathered, they were assaulted by pious toughs who accused them of being anti-Christian traitors and promoters of homosexuality. According to an eyewitness, one of the assailants shouted: “Get out of this country! You are not Georgians! We will not forgive you because you’re corrupting the nation!”

Among those who came out to support the traditionalists was Zviad Dzidziguri of the opposition Conservative Party, who portrays himself as a champion of democracy and is currently campaigning for the post of mayor of Tbilisi in elections on May 30. He suggested that the “sacrilegious” book should be suppressed and denounced together with “satanic” Halloween celebrations and gay pride parades.

Later in the week, a live television debate about freedom of expression also degenerated into a fistfight after Orthodox protesters staged a rally outside the studio. “They were telling us they were defending the church and Georgian values and that we were the country’s greatest shame,” said Nino Zuriashvili, a highly respected Georgian investigative reporter who took part in the debate. “We asked them, ‘How can you say you are Christian when you are beating people?’” As the altercation turned violent, eight people were arrested for what the state prosecutor called “hooliganism.”

One Tbilisi-based blogger who says he was also beaten up by Orthodox activists during last week’s street fights has described the current debate somewhat apocalyptically as a “cultural war” against “Christian fundamentalists.”

But it isn’t the first time that self-appointed defenders of Georgian morality have vented their righteous fury. There were demonstrations last year by young Christians who were infuriated by video clips released on the Internet that mocked the Georgian patriarch. In previous years, there have also been attacks on Jehovah’s Witnesses by believers led by a charismatic rebel priest.

Religion is an integral part of Georgia’s national identity, and for many the church has been the only solid rock to cling to during two decades of post-Soviet turmoil and political conflict. Recent attempts to modernize and democratize the country have created fears among some believers that Georgia’s beloved traditions are being threatened by godless Western amorality.

In a rapidly changing society, these fears, and the disputes they cause, won’t be easily overcome. Last week’s events suggest that free-speech campaigners are getting bolder in resisting what they see as the traditionalists’ suffocating conservatism. But they also indicate that a small but determined minority of hardliners is ready to use fists to defend what they believe is the undisputable truth.

Matthew Collin is a journalist based in Tbilisi.

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