Georgian Parliament passes law allowing Church to gain control of forestlands surrounding churches and monasteries

Tbilisi, May 26, 2020

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In a plenary session held on Friday, May 22, Georgian Parliament voted 79-0 in favor of the first draft of a bill allowing the Georgian Orthodox Church to claim hundreds of hectares of state-owned forestlands around churches and monasteries throughout the country.

According to the law, the Church can claim up to 49.5 acres (20 hectares, the equivalent of about 28 soccer fields) of land owned by the state Forest Fund around every church or monastery. Ownership will be granted ownership of the land upon appealing to the government, reports OC Media.

JAM News reports that the law allows the Church to buy the land.

The bill was initiated by the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Agriculture after consulting with the Church earlier this year. The law does not apply to any other religious organizations in the nation where more than 80% of the population identifies as Orthodox.

Opposition activists denounce the bill as an inappropriate bribery-“gift” to the Church on the eve of autumn 2020 parliamentary elections and argue that it puts the Georgian Orthodox Church in a privileged position over other religious institutions and violates the separation of Church and state.

“The scale of funding and real estate being given to the [Church] by the state is growing in the pre-election period, which can be explained by the government’s wish to gain political support from this influential institution,” a statement from the Tolerance and Diversity Institute said.

Oppositionists are also concerned that the Church will not be able to properly care for the lands without further funds from the state budget.

Deputy Minister of Environment Nino Tandirashvili defended the bill however, denying charges that the bill is timed to the upcoming elections.

She also argued that, if anything, the law would place more responsibility than rights upon the Church’s shoulders, as they would have to sustainably manage the forests.

“With this bill, we are putting a limit on the amount of forest that [the Church] can receive around its churches and monasteries. The main goal of this bill is to protect these important resources—40% of our territory,” the Deputy Minister said.

Commenting on the initiative, His Grace Bishop Nikoloz of Akhalkalaki and Kumurdo said the Church would be a responsible owner of the lands. “I can’t think of a single clergyman who would be such a barbarian to receive a forest, cut it down, and sell and destroy it,” he said.

If the bill finally passes into law, it will go into effect in September 2020.

In July 2018, the Georgian Constitutional Court ruled that privileging the Orthodox Church over other religious groups in tax and state property legislation is discriminatory and unconstitutional.

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