Parliament passed on July 5 with its second and third, final reading amendments to the civil code allowing religious minority groups in Georgia to be registered as legal entities of public law.
Echoing a statement by head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Ilia II, lawmakers from the Christian-Democratic Movement (CDM) called on the ruling party not to hurry with approval of the draft and to give more time for public discussions; after a refusal from the ruling party, CDM lawmakers said as a protest they would not participate in discussions and voting.
Initial draft was specifying that the right to be registered as legal entity of public law would be given to five religious minorities – Armenian Apostolic Church; Roman Catholic Church; Evangelical Baptist Church; Muslim and Jewish communities in Georgia, which were described by the draft as religious groups having “close historic ties with Georgia.”
The emended version, passed with its final reading, no longer contains list of these five religious groups; although it still keeps a formulation that those religious groups will be given the legal status, which have “historic ties to Georgia”, it also introduces a new provision saying that religious groups, which are defined as religions by lawas in Council of Europe member states.
In between the votes ruling party lawmakers were holding consultations with the officials from the Georgian Orthodox Church, which through a written statement by Patriarch Ilia II on July 4 voiced its opposition towards passing of the draft calling for more public discussions.
Ruling party MP Pavle Kublashvili, chairman of parliamentary committee for legal affairs, who was in the Patriarchate before the draft was voted with third reading, said it was not possible to agree on some of the issue.
In particularly, he said no agreement was reached about an additional provision, which the ruling party was planning to add before final voting. According to that provision the Georgian state is obliged to carry out negotiations with foreign countries with a purpose to protect and take care of the Georgian churches in those countries.
The provision was apparently proposed in order to address one of the points raised in the July 4 statement by head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Ilia II, saying that “the issue of ownership and taking care of the Georgian churches in other countries has not been raised so far and the discussion of status of our church [in foreign countries] has not yet started too.”
The provision was eventually removed from the draft voted with final reading, but as lawmakers from the ruling party said discussions would continue on the matter.
Details why this provision became a source of disagreement are not clear, but in February when Georgia was negotiating possible deal with Turkey over restoring historic sites, the Georgian Orthodox Church complained that it was “ignored” in the process of negotiations.
According to the legislative amendment passed on July 5, it will be up to a religious group to decide whether it wants to be registered as an entity of private law or as a legal entity of public law.
A senior cleric from the Georgian Orthodox Church, Archbishop Zenon, linked hasty approval of the legislative amendments by the Georgian Parliament to Armenia, suggesting that after a failure to agree with the Georgian Orthodox Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church managed to achieve its goal of gaining legal status through the consent of the Georgian authorities.
The ruling party lawmakers initiated legislative amendments less than two weeks after visit to Georgia by the Armenian Catholicos, Karekin II, who was discussing with the Georgian side legal status of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Georgia and disputed ownership of several churches in Georgia. These two issues are intertwined as legal status would formally pave way for claiming ownership over the disputed churches.
Archbishop Zenon told Tbilisi-based Maestro TV via phone, that after Karekin II’s visit to Georgia the Armenian press was describing the visit as a failure. “But after this decision [of the Georgian Parliament] Karekin II is a winner,” Archbishop Zenon said.
Just few days before the approval of the draft with first reading on July 1, Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian was in Tbilisi during which he, among other issues, also discussed the issue of status of Armenian Church in Georgia.
The Georgian Orthodox Church also claims ownership over several medieval churches in Armenia, particularly in the province of Lori in northern Armenia, bordering with Georgia, including the one in the village of Akhtala.