Georgian church slams government over religion law

Tbilisi, Georgia - The powerful Georgian Orthodox Church strongly criticized the country's pro-Western government on Wednesday after a law was passed allowing minority faiths to claim legal status.

The Georgian Patriarch – the single most respected person in the ex-Soviet state – issued a statement saying that the legislation "contradicts the interests of the Church and of the country".

"We believe that there will be negative consequences in the near future and the authorities will bear responsibility for that," the statement published on the Patriarch's website said.

The new law, which was approved by parliament on Tuesday, allows other religious groups to be legally registered in the overwhelmingly Orthodox country which has Muslim, Armenian Apostolic, Jewish and Roman Catholic minorities.

"Georgia is a multi-ethnic and multi-confessional country and every citizen of this country, regardless of what religion he belongs to, must have equal rights," said senior governing party lawmaker Nugzar Tsiklauri.

But he said that the Georgian Orthodox Church would retain its special status which is guaranteed by a constitutional agreement with the state.

Orthodox Christianity has undergone a major revival in Georgia since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

The Patriarchate – seen by many people in the country as above any criticism – has become hugely influential in everyday life, wielding political as well as ecumenical power.