Vatican Rebukes Georgia, Orthodox Church

The Vatican issued an unusually strong rebuke to the former Soviet republic of Georgia and its dominant Orthodox Church on Saturday, after the government scrapped an accord guaranteeing religious freedom for Catholics.

The Vatican foreign minister, Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, had traveled to the capital Tbilisi on Thursday to sign the agreement, which would have obliged Georgia to guarantee Catholics the freedom to perform rites, open schools and study church history.

But Tauran went away empty-handed after thousands of Orthodox Christians, including at least one high-ranking church leader, protested in the streets Friday and prompted the government to cancel the signing.

Orthodox Christians and some of their leaders said the agreement would have allowed the Catholic Church, which numbers about 50,000 in the country of 4.4 million, to increase its influence.

Similar complaints have been voiced by the Russian Orthodox Church, which accuses the Vatican of stealing members of its flock and has blocked the pope from visiting the country.

A Vatican official called the issue "serious" but not something that would break relations. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said it wouldn't affect Vatican efforts to improve relations with other Orthodox churches — a priority of Pope John Paul II's 25-year pontificate.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Saturday that relations between the Holy See and the Russian Orthodox Church were far from ideal.

Putin told a group of American reporters at his residence outside Moscow that he would like John Paul to visit Russia but that a full-fledged papal visit could not take place until he had the agreement of the Russian Orthodox Church, which has opposed such a trip.

Saturday's rebuke also was a step back for Vatican relations with Georgia, which John Paul visited in 1999. On that trip, the pope called for new "bridges" with the Orthodox Church and met resistance from some believers suspicious of his intentions.

Tauran issued an unusually critical statement upon his departure from Tbilisi, saying he regretted that the aim of his trip had been thwarted by a "last-minute rethinking by Georgian authorities."

"The Holy See hopes that Georgia, member of important international conventions on human rights, knows how to remedy this regrettable situation," Tauran said in the statement, which was also released in Rome.

Tauran said the Holy See also felt "gravely wounded" by the attitude of the Georgian Orthodox Church, which he said had "diffused news that didn't correspond to reality, despite the fact that it was on several occasions given the chance to be informed of the progress of negotiations."

The leader of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Catholicos-Patriarch Ilya II, had said before Tauran's visit that the church opposed signing the agreement at this time. Other church officials said they merely wanted to know what the accord stipulated.

Bishop Zenon of Dmanisi, a high-ranking official in the Georgian church, attended Friday's rally and said the church supported it. He told the protesters that the agreement would have enabled the Vatican to increase its influence in Georgia.

In televised comments late Saturday, Zenon denied the protest was organized by the church leadership, calling such claims "amoral" and saying the demonstrators "simply showed that they understand the importance of Orthodoxy for Georgia."

Tauran said the incident had caused "great suffering" for John Paul, and said the ones who would suffer the most were Georgia's Catholics, "who remain without any legal guarantees."

The Vatican official noted the incident was particularly grave because Tauran had traveled to Georgia specifically to sign the agreement, which had been worked out well in advance, only to be scrapped at the last minute.

Georgia's constitution guarantees freedom of religion. But in 2001, the government signed an agreement with the Georgian Orthodox Church recognizing its special role.

The pope's overtures for closer ties were met with a cool reception in 1991 as well. Some Orthodox priests reportedly urged followers not to attend the papal Mass, saying it would be a sin.