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Patriarch’s speech marginalizes tolerance, social progress in Georgia

By William King
Thursday, January 9
Fabricating, overstating or flat-out lying about impending mortal, or in this case, moral threats and dangers, is an age-old technique that has been perfected by radical religious figures, politicians and special interest groups for years. Such doomsday scenarios aim to alarm constituencies and through populist outrage, mobilize them against a perceived threat.

Likewise, during his annual Christmas Epistle, Georgian Patriarch Ilia II took a page from the same book by touching on a range of social issues disguised as “threats”, placing traditional Christmas themes on the back-burner in the process. In doing so, he, and by extension, the Orthodox Church, took another brazen step in further blurring the line between the Orthodox Church and the state.

Though he also condemned in vitro fertilization, abortion and surrogacy, one of the more alarming aspects of the patriarch’s address was that he again stoked the fears of the public by emphasizing the prospects and likelihood of gay marriage in Georgia, accusing “pseudo-liberals and “representatives of humanism” as being those who are leading the attack against Georgian family values.

“An all-out struggle is ongoing against traditional views, upbringing and morals. It is very regrettable that minority groups, notable by their markedly negative stance towards Christianity, are portrayed as being renowned representatives of humanism. They have privileges, advertisements, and the media behind them. They are protected by various non-governmental organizations; laws are being amended for the purpose of implementing their goals; and those who are against these principles, especially the Church, appear in [a] discrediting torrent,” the patriarch lamented in his speech.

The patriarch then went on to make clear the church’s position on homosexuality (as if this was ever in question), saying that “such persons need help in overcoming this sinful inclination and [need to] get back to the right way of life.” In qualifying his statement, he said that “this does not mean we should support the propaganda of their sins.”

The picture the patriarch paints is not only baseless and unfounded; it perpetuates fear and further hatred towards a community that has never seriously advocated for gay marriage in Georgia in the first place. In fact, Georgia has never even hosted a Pride Festival, let alone a successful manifestation that promotes “special privileges” for sexual minorities.

As we all recall, for consecutive years now, the small human rights demonstrations that have been staged in this sphere (none of which espousing gay marriage) have ended in violent actions incited by religious zealots associated with the Orthodox Church. Sadly, this has only led to international shame and condemnation, and another black mark on the country.

Unfortunately, the patriarch’s Christmas Epistle only succeeded in solidifying the fears and hatreds that already exist in an already highly homophobic society. Church apologists will undoubtedly call the patriarch’s speech one of benevolence, and one with the single noble purpose of safeguarding Georgian traditions. But he goes further.

After his vilification of homosexuals, he went on to degrade women as well. In his Epistle, he designated man as the “guardian and breadwinner” in the family structure and the woman as being responsible for “housekeeping and the raising of children.”

“And even if [this] seems impossible,” the patriarch noted, “the woman should obey the husband based on God’s commandments…”

With such speech, he risks destroying the progress Georgian women have made over the years in their quest for gender equality and economic independence. This is particularly concerning in a country where even in Tbilisi, the progress women have made is extremely delicate due to the widely prevailing patriarchal mentalities and tendencies that still exist, all of which are cleverly wrapped in the unassailable blanket of “tradition”, leaving no room for objective criticism on the behalf of outsiders or even women among society.

In a society where one man is so beloved and is held in such feverishly high esteem, many people take what the patriarch says as the gospel. With great influence comes great responsibility. As such, the words he uses need to be chosen carefully. As the May 17 violence on Freedom Square last year clearly illustrated, the veiled words of the patriarch, or for that matter his stubborn unwillingness to preemptively condemn his followers’ violent actions, only led to inevitable violence. Good judgment and taking responsibility are paramount to societal harmony. The patriarch has demonstrated neither of these, and has clearly not learned this valuable lesson.

Perhaps he is unaware of his great influence he has on society? Perhaps he doesn’t care? What is likely however, is that his words are sure to have a lasting and reinforcing effect on the hearts and minds of many Georgians. His words will also help shape the minds of the younger generation who have yet to make their mark on Georgian society.

In a country with such potential, a proud history and culture, and one that is filled with such wonderful people, this is truly a disservice to society.