On February 9, the Georgian Patriarchate released a statement condemning a recent agreement between the Georgian and Turkish governments, on the restoration of religious sites on one another’s sovereign territory. The Georgian government has consented to build a new mosque in Batumi, in exchange for restoration work to be conducted on the Oshki and Ishkhani monasteries in Turkey. The administration understandably presented this decision as an achievement, but the Georgian Orthodox Church considers the deal unacceptable.
The Patriarchate is primarily taking issue with the format of the negotiations, which it says ignores Georgian legislation dictating that the Church should participate in all such talks. Discussion has been ongoing for two years, and the Georgian government has yet to invite the Patriarchate – even though the Church was strong enough to scuttle a similar agreement three years ago.
In the new deal, which has yet to be formally signed by either government, restoration work will be completed on the Ahmed mosque in Akhaltsikhe, and a new Aziz mosque will be built in Batumi, after its predecessor burnt down last century.
The patriarchate is unhappy because the mosques in Georgia will be under the “ownership” of Muslim organizations, while Georgian sites in Turkey remain under Turkish control, with some Georgian consultation. They call the deal “unfair”, especially since UNESCO dictates that it is the responsibility of every state to protect the cultural heritage on its territory – therefore, Turkey should need no such deal in order to restore Georgian churches. The Patriarchate believes that such an agreement was unnecessary.
As a compromise, and to show its support for continued negotiations, the Patriarchate suggests the restoration of a small basilica-type Georgian church in Ardasheni, Turkey, using Church funds, then resuming negotiations with themselves at the table. If this is unacceptable to the Turkish government, then the construction of the Aziz mosque is also unacceptable as, according to the Patriarchate, it is a reminder of very “difficult” period in Georgian history. The Patriarchate also suggests that these negotiations, if not conducted properly, could create tension between Muslims and Christians.
Ministry of Culture, as well as MP Goka Gabashvili, responded to the statement, confirming the government’s commitment to the deal, and to negotiating with the Turkish government as they have been doing for years. Both the Christian-Democrats and the Democrats also responded, supporting the patriarchate’s position and condemning state officials for ignoring the Church, and what they claim is also public opinion.
Saakashvili, meanwhile, has spoken strongly in favour of building the mosques. In a January 25 interview, he noted that there are over 200 000 Muslims in Georgia, and that those who believe the construction of the mosques is un-Georgian, “amounts to saying that those thousands of Muslims should not be living in Georgia… I cannot allow that”.
It is evident today that there has been a split in opinion between the government and the Patriarch, although it is unclear on which side the population falls. Saakashvili may have taken a very risky path – and not all political, civil, and religious institutions have weighed in yet. While neither the Patriarchate nor the opposition can stop the government from building a mosque in Batumi, what is less clear is whether this deal could trigger some unpleasant developments.