Nevertheless, dedicated supporters of the Georgian Orthodox Church with strong anti-LGBT sentiments verbally insulted anti-theocrats during the rallies, to which the latter did not respond. Famous singers, journalists, photographers, politicians, students and public activists carrying posters stating “Don’t beat us on behalf of God” and “I don’t want to be ruled by the church,” insisted that offenders involved in the May 17 violence be punished.
On that day, several thousand anti-gay protesters, led by Orthodox clergy, attacked a few dozen gay-rights advocates from the organization Identoba aiming to hold an IDAHO rally in the center of Tbilisi. The anti-homophobia rally was scheduled for May 17 at 1pm, outside the former parliament building at Rustaveli Avenue. An hour earlier, the anti-gay demonstrators equipped with icons and banners stating “Stop Homosexual Propaganda in Georgia” occupied the space, compelling LGBT defenders to move to the Freedom Square located in an adjacent area.
Although police blocked the avenue to prevent anti-gay protesters from relocating to the square, groups led by radical Orthodox priests broke the fragile line of law enforcement officers and rushed towards the LGBT demonstration. As the chaos started, police hurried to escort gay rights activists to several municipal buses and evacuated them from the scene. The exalted crowd, however, flooded Freedom Square and then ran to nearby streets in the hope of finding LGBT representatives. Individuals allegedly affiliated with the gay activists were verbally and physically abused by the radicals. 28 persons, including one journalist, were injured as a result of the violence.
The clash received strong reactions from representatives of the NGO sector, who categorically demanded the immediate punishment of offenders and criticized the ineffectiveness of police, which they say should have done more than evacuating the anti-homophobia activists. An online petition initiated by human rights activists and public figures attracted more than 13,000 signatures.
Addressing President Mikheil Saakashvili, Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili and Parliamentary Chairman David Usupashvili, the petition declared that the violence affected not only IDAHO demonstrators but also Georgian statehood. The signatories of the document claimed that a number of criminal offenses including hooliganism, attacks on police, and infringement on the rights to assembly, speech and equality were committed during the May 17 developments. Ivanishvili was quick to strongly condemn the violence and pledged that the perpetrators “will be dealt with according to the law.”
A few days later, four men were arrested for petty hooliganism and disobeying police and another four individuals, including two Orthodox priests, were charged with encroachment on the right to assembly and manifestation.
The Georgian Dream (GD) parliamentary majority, however, did not provide a unified reaction to the May 17 developments. The chairman of the GD parliamentary majority group, MP Davit Saganelidze blamed the IDAHO rally organizers for performing and intentional provocation while Tina Khidasheli, another GD MP, termed the attack on gay activists an act of vandalism that cannot be justified.
The EU’s special adviser for legal and constitutional reform and human rights in Georgia Thomas Hammarberg said on May 17 that he was disappointed that this right of expression was violently blocked and appealed to the head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Ilia II, to use his influence to calm the situation.
On May 16 Patriarch Ilia II called on the authorities to ban the planned gay rights rally, which he termed a manifestation of “anomaly and disease.” After the events, however, he expressed regret of the “impolite” behavior displayed by the priests.
The May 17 events highlighted the prevalence of anti-gay sentiments and radical Orthodox views in Georgian society. It also demonstrated the weakness of state institutions, which not only failed to prevent the disorder but have also so far been unsuccessful in punishing most of the perpetrators engaging in violence. Despite the extensive breach of the law, only 8 people were found guilty while a significant amount of video footage highlighting the dramatic incident was available to the investigation.
Although human rights activists and the civil sector vigorously challenge the Church’s dominance and seek to maintain Georgia’s secular statehood, the Orthodox Church is increasing its influence in the country’s political life. It annually receives around US$15 million from the state budget and additionally takes advantage of tax-exempt trade. More importantly, according to various polls, the church enjoys the highest public trust rating among all institutions in Georgia. Thus, restricting the church’s influence is a highly sensitive issue to the Georgian government. The activation of Orthodox doctrines, especially in light of the high unemployment rate and social-economic discontent, undermines liberal and democratic values in Georgia and contributes to further polarization of the public.