This story describes the extent and scale of the registered property of the Orthodox Church in Georgia
The Georgian Patriarchate has the faith of 83 percent of the country’s population and is the most influential and rich religious organization in Georgia.
It is also the country’s most closed-off institution. Over a period of 25 years, the church has actively participated in the political and economic life of the country. Beginning from the 1990s, after Georgia’s declaration of independence, the church quickly acquired not only influence but also property that it had owned in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The magazine ‘Indigo’, with the support of the Open Society Foundation – Georgia, over the course of a year studied the extent of property registered to the Patriarchate. In the project «Capital of the Patriarchate», more than 5,000 documents in the public registry were gathered and analyzed.
Headlines: what do the hundreds of documents discovered by ‘Indigo’ show?
— The capital of the Georgian Orthodox Church has grown from the very first day of the fall of the Soviet Union
— The Patriarchate owns approximately 62.7 square kilometers of land, which is approximately equal to the size of the city of Batumi
— 96 percent of the land was received by the Patriarchate for temporary use from the state and from private individuals free of charge
— Since 2002, the Patriarchate has received from central and local budges more than 285 million lari
— The Georgian church is headed by 47 members of the Synod, 41 of which are also involved in the business activities of the Patriarchate. A majority of the members of the Synod hold property themselves
— The Patriarchate holds 40 companies and shares in four other companies and 105 non-governmental organizations (NGOs)
— The main focus of the business interests of the Patriarchate and its NGOs is education, although it does own companies that are connected to the import of oil products and the production of alcohol
The relationship between the Orthodox Church and the Government is regulated by a constitutional agreement which was approved of by Parliament on October 22, 2002.
This document is considered one of the highest legal acts in Georgia after the Constitution. This agreement gives the Church privileges that are incomparable to the rights and privileges received by other religious communities.
This document has been on multiple occasions the target of criticism by the Venice Commission. The conclusions of the Venice Commission state that giving the agreement constitutional status contradicts all principles of a secular state.
And that’s not at all.
The Parliament of Georgia is not only unable to annul the document, but it is unable to implement even the smallest of changes in it.
According to the law, even if three fifths of the MPs agrees to enact changes to the document, then this will be impossible, because they would need the approval of the Church. It is much easier to change the Constitution of Georgia than it is to change this document.
Since 1995, the Georgian Constitution has gone through 33 changes, and is awaiting radical new changes.
What privileges are afforded to the Orthodox Church by the constitutional agreement?
The Church is free from taxation. According to the constitutional agreement, «products made by the church, their transport and also property and land not used for commercial purposes are free from taxation».
The Church is an exclusive partner of the State in the sphere of education. For example, the State is obliged to help finance educational facilities of the Church. The agreement also says that the study of a religious subject is voluntary in public schools – however, the assembly of the curriculum, changes made to it and the appointing of a teacher takes place only by the Church’s hand.
Another important privilege: the head of the Orthodox Church is inviolable and immune to criminal prosecution. Ilia II cannot be arrested nor charged with criminal deeds while he is the Patriarch. According to the Constitution of Georgia, the only other person in the country to enjoy such a right is the President of Georgia.
In the agreement, it is also written that the government acknowledges that the church owns monasteries, temples, their ruins and pieces of land upon which they are located. The nebulous definition of «pieces of land upon which they are located» gives the Church wide berth in interpreting the legislation. For example, the Patriarchate often receives grazing and hunting fields and forests from the government by pointing to churches and other Church structures that are on the periphery of such territories.
Other recognized religious confessions in Georgia do not have such privileges.
Why is the Church scooping up Government property?
Representatives of the government and the Patriarchy have explained in official statements that the resources given to the Church are compensation for damages that the Church sustained during the 19 and 20th centuries under the Russian Empire and later under the Soviet Union. It is namely this property that has been returned to the Church over the course of the past 27 years after the fall of the Soviet Union and Georgia’s reclaimed independence.
The fact that the government takes responsibility upon itself for what went on during both the Soviet and the Russian Imperial periods is dubious at best. According to data from the Caucasian Archaeographical Commission, before 1860, the Orthodox Church was the largest feudal organization in the country and owned an impressive amount of property and territories: more than 700,000 hectares of land.
For what damage is the Church seeking compensation?
This is not known to anyone.
According to the 2002 constitutional agreement, a special commission was supposed to have been created, which would have established the exact amount of damage. This commission got together for several meetings, however it did not come to a conclusion in this matter. And to this day it is unknown on just what basis does the Government transfer money into the coffers of the Church, how much more it owes the Church and for how much longer this process will continue.
All places of worship that had been nationalized by the Soviet authorities were returned to the Patriarchy in 1990.
After concluding the 2002 agreement, the Patriarchy received 6270 hectares of land, and received at least 285 million lari from the government.
How are lands bequeathed to the church?
The registration of land into the ownership of the Church began under the management of the United National Movement.
The transfer of property to the church takes place in the following way: the President issues an order; the Ministry of Economy and Development then draws up a contract of purchase; a representative of the Patriarchate buys the property for the symbolic price of one lari or one dollar. This system, approved of in the period of rule of the United National Movement, continues to be used under the Georgian Dream administration.
The majority of lands are transferred without charge to the Patriarchate or for ‘limited temporal use’. Moreover, the phrase ‘limited temporal use’ is not specified.
Presents: an ironing board and a maternity hospital
And that’s not all. These documents also show that the state, in addition to land and money, gifts the Church other items as well. The list is eclectic. Amongst the items on the list are ironing boards, cars and even a maternity hospital.
The Church received the maternity hospital and a cardio clinic in Tbilisi from the government of Eduard Shevardnadze. From the government of Mikheil Saakashvili, 10,000 bricks, an acoustic system, 80 kilograms of brass. From the Georgian Dream administration, the Church has received 32 hats, a compass, a belt, boots, one safe, an aluminum frying pan, two busses, 10,000 blocks made of tuff and other items.
25 million every year
Despite the fact that the damages sustained by the Church from the State have not been established, the State continues to transfer tens of millions of lari from the state budget to the Patriarchate ever year. From the date of the concluding of the agreement, 285 million lari have been transferred to the Patriarchate.
In its statements, the Patriarchate underlines that the 25 million lari that it receives every year are compensation for damages sustained from the Russian Empire and the Soviet authorities. And that the Church uses this money to finance its social and educational activities.
There is no open information as to how the church uses this money. The State does not control the aims of the Church or how it spends its money. State auditing agencies do not have the right to check the financial activities of the Patriarchate according to the 2002 agreement.
The research shows that the most generous financing and the largest pieces of land are received namely when the country is in the middle of a difficult political or social period.
Business of the Patriarchate
Documents received by Indigo show that since 1997 to this day, the Patriarchate has founded 40 companies, acquired stakes in 4 other companies and registered 105 non-commercial, non-producing organizations – that is, so-called NGOs
Indigo discovered one interesting tendency: the main business interests of the church are connected to education. Education is the main priority of the Patriarchate. 22 companies of 44 function namely in the sphere of education; the majority of the 105 NGOs are universities or church/parishioner schools. The main aim of this alternative system of education is to bring up youth in accordance with Christian values.
The second spot on the list of business interests of the Patriarchate is filled by agriculture; construction, healthcare and media follow.
From these public documents, one can see that several interests involve the import of oil and petroleum products – other interests include alcohol production and sports: the Patriarchate owns the rugby club, «Bagrat».
It is not known how much money comes from these companies into the Patriarchate’s coffers. Do they pay taxes?
Information concerning the financial situation of these companies and about their contributions to the state budget are not public. Government agencies, according to the same agreement, do not check the activities of these companies.
Richest members of the Synod
From public documentation one can see that the 47 members of the Holy Synod are rather wealthy. Many of them own land plots, property and 41 of them are involved in the business activities of the Patriarchate.
The Chairman of the Synod, the Catholicos Patriarch of All Georgia Ilia II, according to the public register, does not own property. His only property, a piece of land in Mtskheta, he gave to his nephew in 2008, the Laz and Batumi Metropolitan. Aside from the Patriarch, only five other members of the Synod do not own property, according to the register.