By Eka Basilaia
The Messenger, Georgia Jan 20 2006

In interview, Georgian Public Defender debates constitutional status of the Orthodox Church Ombudsman Sozar Subari The ongoing political debate over religious issues has caused the Public Defender to speak out in public against the perceived hegemony of the Orthodox Church. Leading politicians meanwhile accuse him of unjustly defending sectarian religions in a country where Orthodox Christianity is the religious majority's historic faith. Wednesday's session of the parliamentary committee for human rights protection turned into a panel for heated debate and clashes when Ombudsman Sozar Subari spoke up in defense of the rights of religious minorities.

Subari stated that discrimination along religious lines is commonplace in Georgia and proposed a reconsideration of the 2001 Concordat that was made between the Georgian Orthodox Church and the government - a proposal that was met with outrage by many Georgian politicians. "According to the Georgian Constitution every person is born equal," Subari said in an interview with The Messenger on Thursday adding, "Of course this does not rule out the possibility that one particular religion might have a special or different status, but this status should not turn into a privilege." The Georgian Constitution calls for the protection of the freedom of speech and condemns the persecution of people on the bases of their opinion, confession or faith. At the same time there is a constitutional agreement between the government and the Georgian Orthodox church according to which the Georgian state acknowledges the historical significance and contributions of Christian Orthodoxy. "However, this status should not serve as a means to make exceptions for only those who posses it. When the difference turns into a privilege or a form of dominance which puts religious minorities in an unfavorable condition, it contradicts the Georgian Constitution and can be labeled as discrimination," Subari said.

He said that the status grants the Orthodox clergy and church a variety of benefits not offered to other faiths such as the right bow out of military service; certain tax advantages; the Orthodox wedding ceremony is given the same legal status as a civil wedding; and chaplains at government run institutions, such as prisons or the military, are only Orthodox Christians. Subari protested against privileges such as the tax break and military exemption stating, "I believe that if we grant these favors to only one religious faith then we neglect the rights of other religions."

Another thing that Subari is concerned about is the issue of Armenian churches that he said historically belonged to Armenians residing in Georgia, but are now in the hands of the state. "The state should by all means return these churches to their historical owners," Subari demanded, noting "If the provenance of any of these churches is debatable a commission should be set up to study the historical background and determine its rightful owner." Subari pointed to two cases - Norasheni church in Tbilisi in Leselidze Street and Surbnisani church in Akhaltsiakhe - which he believes call for immediate attention. "I will never be able to feel like a true Christian when the territories and churches that historically belonged to certain religious groups are taken away illegally," Subari contended.