Religious Freedom 2009, Georgia: report criticizes Georgian government for appropriation of churches of other denominations

The annual International Religions Freedom Report 2009 released by the State Department this week says the restitution of the property confiscated during the communist regime remains a contentious issue in Georgia.

The report says Georgian Government did not return any additional churches, mosques, synagogues, or meeting halls.

Since the country's independence 18 years ago, the Armenian Apostolic Church has claimed ownership of 6 inactive churches. The disputed churches are owned by the (Georgian) state. The government position is that the issues should be resolved with the consensus of the Government, the Armenian Apostolic Church and the Georgian Orthodox Church.

The report refers to the controversy around the disposition of the Norashen Church, claimed by both Armenian Apostolic Church and Georgian OC, which has been closed since 1995. The report says on November last year, Father Tariel Sikinchelashvili, a Georgian Orthodox Priest, brought a bulldozer into the churchyard, which a Georgian church shared with the Norashen church.

To clear the grounds for the bulldozer to pass, he removed and later replaced several Armenian headstones in the yard. Armenian clergy called this action disrespectful to the Armenian remains buried there. At the end of the reporting period, the activity had stopped and the rubble that sat atop some of the Armenian graves had been cleared. A commission formed to discuss disputed churches made no progress during the reporting period.

Officials of the Armenian Apostolic Church believed that property disputes were not resolved in a transparent legal process but rather on a case-by-case basis that distinctly favored Georgian Orthodox Church’s claims. They claimed that the Government was unwilling to resolve disputes over the ownership of disputed church properties for fear of offending Georgian Orthodox Church constituents.

Further the report mentions that Armenian Apostolic Church as well as other Churches (Roman Catholic Church and several Protestant denominations) continued to have difficulty obtaining permission to construct new churches, due to the reluctance of local authorities to issue building permits that could antagonize local Georgian Orthodox Church officials.

During 2009 Roman Catholics noted that teachers said that children who make the sign of the cross in school in the orthodox manner are "making the sign of God," while children who make the sign of the cross in the Roman Catholic manner are "making the sign of the devil."

The report says in contrast, the Georgian Orthodox Church had most of its properties restored. During the Soviet era the State seized most of its properties. Nearly all of these have been returned to the Church. In addition to restoring GOC properties, the Government also allocates grants to the Church every year to help offset some of the damage done during the Soviet era. In 2009 the grant was in the amount of $15 million