Georgia: monasteries, churches to be allowed to buy 20 ha of forest – opposition claims election bribery of patriarchy
The Parliamentary Committee for Environmental Protection of Georgia has supported a bill which will give the right to any Orthodox church or monastery
Activists and the opposition consider this an unacceptable “gift” of the Georgian Orthodox Church on the eve of the parliamentary elections scheduled for autumn 2020.
The idea belongs to the Ministry of Agriculture.
The bill has caused a widespread negative response. A petition appeared on Facebook with hundreds of signatures demanding the discussion of the bill be suspended.
Experts and non-governmental organizations say there are a number of potentially dangerous consequences:
Such a decision puts the Orthodox Church in a more privileged position than other faiths, violates the rule of law and the principle of separation of state and church.
The opposition believes that the bill can be regarded as an attempt by the authorities to bribe the patriarchy and attract this extremely influential institution in Georgia to its side in anticipation of parliamentary elections in the fall of 2020.
The church will not be able to look after the acquired forests on its own and will require additional funds from the state budget for this.
According to the latest census, 83 percent of Georgian residents are Orthodox. According to a study by the National Democratic Institute, published January 16, 2020, almost 70 percent of the population trust the Georgian Orthodox Church. The church traditionally plays an important role in electoral processes, sometimes directly using sermons for political purposes.
The authorities reject these attacks, in turn accusing the opposition of “another lie” and “political speculation”.
The bill entrusts the church with more responsibilities than gives it additional rights, said Nino Tandilashvili, deputy minister of agriculture. Responsibilities include inventory, tree care, restoration, hiring specialists, etc.
If the law is nevertheless adopted, its main provisions will go into effect starting September 2020.
The Patriarchate is one of the richest religious organizations in the country.
Indigo magazine, with the support of the Open Society Georgia Foundation, has studied the extent of the registered property and possessions of the patriarchate over the course of the year.
The project Capital of the Patriarchate contains an analysis of about five thousand documents received from the state registry.
From thousands of documents found and analyzed by Indigo, it turns out:
● The capital of the Georgian Orthodox Church has been steadily growing since the collapse of the USSR
● The Patriarchate owns land plots with a total area of more than 62.7 square kilometers, which is almost equal to the area of the city of Batumi
● 96 percent of the land the patriarchy was received free of charge in the ownership or temporary free use from the state and private individuals
● From 2002 to the present day, the patriarchy has received more than 325 million lari [about $101.2 million] from the central and local budgets
● The Georgian Orthodox Church is led by 47 members of the Holy Synod, 41 of them are involved in the business activities of the patriarchate. The members of the synod possess large amounts of property
● The patriarchy has several dozen business companies and more than 100 non-governmental organizations
● The main area of business activity of the patriarchy is education. But there are companies involved in the import of petroleum products and the production of alcoholic beverages.