Georgia TV show sparks holy row

Tbilisi, Georgia - A row has erupted in Georgia after a TV show called Top Ten Best Georgians included 18 saints in its shortlist.

Representatives of Georgia's most senior cleric, Patriarch Ilia II, have called for the programme to be banned.

A spokesman for the patriarch, who is the head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, said it was wrong to ask the public to put saints in rank order.

But the show's editors have refused to comply and say production of the next edition is going ahead as planned.

In a country where the word of the Church is seen as supreme, this contest was always going to be controversial.

The TV programme, modelled on the BBC's 100 Great Britons, asked viewers and contestants to vote on 500 candidate personalities from Georgia's past.

Among them were well-known national cultural figures, as well as those who have been canonised.

And that is where the row started.

Rare dissent

Subordinates of Patriarch Ilia II had voiced their concern about the format of the TV show from its outset.

At first those calls mostly went unheeded.

Then, voting by more than 300,000 viewers put one of Georgia's most widely celebrated medieval kings - now known to the Church as Saint David the Builder- into the top 50.

A further 13 saints also made it on to the shortlist.

At once the Georgian Orthodox Church protested that saints should never have been part of the contest because it was, in their words, unjustified to make the public put them in rank order.

Reports say the board of the TV channel that airs the show has been deadlocked as to how to respond.

It is rare for anyone in a position of authority - even leading politicians - to oppose the view of the Georgian patriarch.

But now the programme editors say that they will not be hurried into a decision and recording for the next edition will go ahead on Thursday.

As with a similar public debate in Ukraine last year over its version of the contest, the row has polarised Georgian society.

Many believe that the patriarch is more important than the law.

As the show continues to reduce the shortlist to a top 10 over the coming weeks, the debate looks set to continue.