Georgian president, in Vatican flap, promises new religious freedoms

President Eduard Shevardnadze announced that Georgia planned to enact a wide-ranging law extending religious freedoms, a week after scrapping an accord sought by the Vatican to protect Roman Catholics.

The Vatican foreign minister, Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, had traveled to the capital Tbilisi on Sept. 18 to sign the agreement, which would have obliged the former Soviet republic to guarantee Catholics could 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 Orthodox leader, protested in the streets, prompting the government to cancel the signing.

Orthodox Christians and some of their leaders said the agreement would have allowed the Catholic Church, which has about 50,000 followers in this 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.

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

The new religious law, which Shevardnadze said Monday is "almost ready," would take a broader approach, ensuring that Georgia's protection of religious freedom is in line with international laws and norms.

"I don't think that an agreement must be signed with representatives of every religion," Shevardnadze said, noting that the Orthodox Church was a unique case because of "her special role in the history of Georgia."