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Traditional religion and political power: Examining the role of the church in Georgia, Armenia, Ukraine and Moldova

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Traditional religion and political power: Examining the role of the church in Georgia, Armenia, Ukraine and Moldova examines the political and social role of the Orthodox Churches in Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova and of the Armenian Apostolic Church. It explores the ways in which the churches have contributed to the development of national identities since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the role they play in civil society. The publication looks at the nature of the relationship between church and state; how the churches influence, support and challenge the secular authorities in their hold on power and their response to ‘traditional values’ issues such as LGBTI and minority faith rights. The publication also looks at the ways in which the Russian Orthodox Church and Russian Government have been looking to influence this debate in these countries.

The publication contains contributions from: Professor Yulia Antonyan, Yerevan State University; Eka Chitanava, Tolerance and Diversity Institute; Stepan Danielyan, Collaboration for Democracy Centre; Adam Hug (ed.), Foreign Policy Centre; Myroslav Marynovych, Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv; Victor Munteanu, Soros Foundation Moldova; Rev. Fr. Dr Daniel Payne; Professor Oleksandr Sagan, Skovoroda Institute of Philosophy and Irakli Vacharadze, Executive Director, Identoba. Kindly supported by the Open Society Foundations.

Traditional religion and political power: Executive summary

This publication shows how the churches in Georgia and Armenia have played an important role in helping the re-emergence of their national identities, while in Ukraine and Moldova the religious institutions have been adapting to that change in national identity. In the case of Ukraine the different branches of the church have been developing in different ways, responding to competing ideas of what it means to be Ukrainian. In all four states the churches are looking to entrench their role in society and are testing the limits of their influence given that they are the most trusted institutions in each country. To varying extents they have all used a ‘traditional values’ agenda, focused primarily and most successfully on opposition to LGBTI rights, to bolster their support. The Russian Church and state have also been trying to promote this traditional values agenda as part of their ethos of ‘the Russian World’ with which they have been looking to influence the churches and societies of their ‘near abroad’. The Russian social agenda tallies with that of the orthodox communities in these four countries, though this does not always translate into geo-political support for Russia as some of the churches are keen to assert their independence. Having been pushed to the margins of society in Soviet times, the Orthodox churches have taken the opportunity to place themselves at the centre of national and political life in Georgia, Armenia, Ukraine and Moldova, a position they are unlikely to relinquish in the near future. The publication has found that:

In Ukraine the impact of the conflict has dramatically changed the balance of power between the two largest churches, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kiev Patriarchate (UOC-KP).The UOC-MP has traditionally dominated religious life and been the favoured partner of pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine, but its position is threatened as it is organisationally part of the Russian Church. The publication documents how certain UOC-MP priests have been seen to be supporting the separatists, blessing battle flags in Donbas and Russian troops in Crimea for example, which has caused significant damage to its reputation. The UOC-KP has used the Maidan protests and current crisis to transform itself, winning new followers and positioning itself as a national church.

In Georgia the Church is an independently powerful political actor that has played an important role in the political landscape with Georgian orthodoxy central to the rebuilding of Georgian national identity in the post-Soviet period. The publication shows how church support for the Georgian Dream coalition helped it to power in 2012 and has continued to help it in recent elections; reflecting the more conservative approach of some of its members and former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili’s longstanding financial support of the church. The Church has been an outspoken opponent of LGBTI rights, with orthodox clergy famously taking part in a riot against a small LGBTI rights protest, its social conservatism both shaping and reflecting homophobic attitudes in wider society.

In Armenia the Armenian Apostolic Church’s problems mirror that of the wider elite: the lack of transparency and atmosphere of corruption that risks undermining public trust over the longer term. The wide spread patronage of the Church by oligarchs and politicians is used to boost social status and political support, while there is a lack of transparency about its finances. There is a need to reform the Law on Freedom of Conscience and on Religious Organizations to end discrimination against minority faiths and to develop a new anti-discrimination law covering employment and other areas. There are also concerns that the Church’s role in education is exceeding its legal remit.

In Moldova the Moldovan Orthodox Church is part of the Moscow Patriarchate and is seen as a strong supporter of the Russian world view and traditional social values in a country whose pro-European government is coming under increasing pressure. The state has been slowly reforming its legislation to reduce discrimination against minorities, in the face of strong opposition from the church, as part of Moldova’s EU Association process and following a critical report by the UN Special Rapporteur for freedom of religion or belief.

Recommendations to the governments of Georgia, Armenia, Ukraine and Moldova
• Develop a consistent approach to registration and taxation for all religions
• Improve transparency around financial donations made to churches and related institutions by both the state and individuals
• Ensure programmes to cover restitution of church property seized by the Soviets cover all religious denominations and are transparently managed
• Maintain and strengthen legal and constitutional protections of universal human rights, particularly around freedom of religion and minority rights
• Ensure that the involvement of religious institutions in the development of education remains within the remit set out in national laws, avoids compulsory worship without parental consent and works to include all groups
• Enforce court decisions, both national and European, in relation to the protection of minorities and abide by their universal human rights commitments under the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Recommendations to the international community
• Continue to provide donor support for organisations defending LGBTI, women’s and minority faith rights in the context of universal human rights
• Look more creatively at the role of culture in the face of the concerted push by Russian and local conservative actors to promote a ‘traditional values’ culture hostile to those rights
• Engagement around EU Eastern Partnership must reaffirm the EU’s commitment to minority and universal human rights, respecting freedom of expression and conscience. The EU should make clear that legal discrimination against minority groups limits the scope for European integration

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