Armenian Church Hails Georgia's Religious Minorities Law

Yerevan, Armenia - The Armenian Apostolic Church has welcomed the decision by Georgian authorities that will allow it to gain legal status in Georgia, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reports.

Depite fierce opposition from the leadership of the Georgian Orthodox Church and some political factions, pro-government lawmakers in Tbilisi on July 5 voted in accelerated second- and third-reading procedures to approve an amendment to the civil code granting five minority religious groups, including the local Armenian Church, the status of "legal entities of public law."

Other beneficiaries of the amendment that have long sought such a status are the Roman Catholic Church, the Evangelical Baptist Church, and the Muslim and Jewish communities in Georgia.

The amendment to the civil code was signed into law by President Mikheil Saakashvili despite calls from the opposition and the Georgian Orthodox Church to veto it, the presidential press office said.

A spokesman for the Armenian Apostolic Church, Father Vahram Melikian, indicated the move was a result of arrangements made with Georgian authorities during last month's visit to Georgia by Karekin II, the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

During the June 10-15 visit, Karekin met both Georgian Orthodox Church Patriarch Ilia II and Saakashvili.

"It was a process that resulted also from the arrangements made during that pontifical visit.... In this sense, it was certainly an expected move," Melikian told RFE/RL on July 7. "The Georgian authorities initiated it, because the moment was ripe."

He expressed gratitude on behalf of the Armenian Apostolic Church to Saakashvili for "granting the request of His Holiness and giving a solution to the matter."

The Georgian Orthodox Church continues to oppose the amendment.

In a statement released shortly after its passage on July 5, it said that the responsibility for the negative consequences of the changes lies with Georgian officials. It warned that the law "contradicted the interests of both the Georgian Church and the state" and that its "negative consequences will become apparent very soon."

In this regard, Melikian said he's convinced that the position held by the Georgian Orthodox Church is directed against "various religious currents and organizations," rather than the Armenian Apostolic Church.

According to the amendment to Georgia's civil code, religious groups that have "historical ties to Georgia" or are defined as religions by legislation in Council of Europe member states can be registered as legal entities of public law.

"It is clear that the [Georgian] patriarch is concerned about the registration, in the future, of other religious organizations," Melikian said. "I think their statements to this effect are prompted by this very concern."

One of the main arguments of the Georgian Orthodox Church against the legislation was that such important documents need to have extensive public discussion and require a "consensus" before being approved.

It has also indicated that the amendment should have been passed only if a similar status were provided to the Georgian Orthodox Church in neighboring countries, with the emphasis reportedly placed on Armenia.

Melikian said such statements are unclear to him because, as he insisted, no obstacles exist for the registration of the Georgian Church in Armenia.

"The Georgian side has repeatedly raised this question, also during His Holiness's visit to Georgia," Melikian said. "In his public speech...Karekin II stated that the Georgian Church, the Georgian Orthodox community, have no problem registering in Armenia, because the law in the Republic of Armenia offers all conditions and opportunities. For his part, His Holiness also expressed his readiness to assist in the matter of taking all necessary steps for the registration to take place," he continued.