Violence in Georgia and the Ambivalence of a Cross

by Tamara Grdzelidze | български | ქართული | ελληνικά | Русский | Română | Српски

St. Nino's Cross

In the aftermath of erecting a metal cross to replace the flag of Europe in front of Georgia’s Parliament on July 5, my intention was to write only on the ambivalence of this cross, but things took a horrifying turn.

World media and social platforms gave an ample coverage to the events that unfolded around the days of Gay Pride, especially to the developments on the last day when Pride organizers decided to avoid clashes and canceled the March of Dignity on the 5th. This decision was a result of the unprecedented aggression against journalists and media persons on the same day. They were reporting on the counter-Pride demonstration—masterminded by anti-Western, i.e. pro-Putinist Russian forces—strongly encouraged by the Orthodox Church of Georgia.[1] A young cameraman from one of the opposition TV channels, Lexo Lashqarava, severely beaten and injured, was found dead at home on the 11th. Thus, my original intention has been overshadowed by the tragedy of the loss of a human life.

Over fifty reporters and cameramen were beaten and injured, the office of LGBT was vandalized, and on the same day a male tourist was attacked and stabbed in the street for wearing an earring. Some of us were left speechless, angry, frustrated. The fact is that on July 5th, the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Georgia, fully subordinated to the ruling party, was not vigilant enough—in spite of the continuous threats from the pro-Putinist Russia groups which also claim to be defenders of national and Orthodox identity. There are a few cases of the Orthodox hierarchs and clergy speaking very aggressively against Pride and inspiring their flock to fight against the “threats of immorality and losing the Orthodox tradition.” In response to the criticism from the Ambassadors of the United States, the main strategic partner of the state of Georgia, and of the European Union, one hierarch infamously proclaimed that it was not a big deal if one media person died.  

A very brief analysis of those voices and groups involved in provoking the anti- Western, anti-democratic, anti-pluralistic, pro-isolationist, pro-Putinist Russian, pro-pseudo-orthodox drifts shows that these people, either willingly or in expectation of benefits, halt the sovereignty and democratic development of the Georgian state.

On the 5th of July a group of anti-“Pride,” i.e. anti-Western, members of the Orthodox Church took down the flag of Europe (the flag is the main heraldry symbol of the European Union and the Council of Europe), burnt it, and replaced it with a cross of ”victory”—a massive metal cross in the shape of the traditional Georgian cross attributed to St. Nino, the evangelizer of the Georgians (4th century)—in front of the Parliament building in Tbilisi. Despite the fact that the flag was raised again the next day by the head of Parliament, the metal cross has been hanging over it like a sword of Damocles.

Meanwhile the ruling party developed a rhetoric of self-defence, accusing the opposition of organizing the events, and, finding out that the deceased journalists’ body contained a trace of drugs, announced the possibility of his being killed by an overdose. This charge is made despite abundant evidence of Lexo Lashqarava’s facial injuries and a short video of about twenty people beating him up when he defended a female reporter from the mob while they were reporting for a newsfeed.

The aggression around the Pride event was disproportionate to everything what was happening in reality, and sadly it was not taken seriously by the police, and there were not enough police officers on the scene to control the situation and defend journalists from the mob’s aggression.

Why a cross instead of the flag of Europe? It is an underlying question of these tragic developments. Who thinks that the burnt flag of Europe is justly replaced by an ad hoc massive metal cross? Are the two incompatible? Since when does the cross of Christ call for destruction? Unfortunately, all segments of society involved in or advocating for those aggressive actions turned away from the Gospel, from the meaning of the cross of the resurrected Christ, one of the strongest Christian symbols. First and foremost, Christ’s power/authority is “not of this world” (John 18:36), and it is not meant to replace any world authority but to transform believers and give a new life in Christ, a life immersed in love of the Lord and of one’s neighbor. “Neighbors” include all human beings, without exception and without qualification.

On the other hand, the flag of Europe today stands for equality of all human beings, and therefore it symbolizes the right to live one’s own life in pursuit of happiness without destroying the life of the other. The sense of protection and responsibility for the lives of others lies at the heart of the “equality of human beings” that needs continuous unfolding and interpretation. At heart, despite the different platforms on which they stand, care for one’s neighbour and concern for the equality of all human beings are not as contradictory as the replacement of the burnt flag of Europe by the Christian cross.

[1] The locum tenens of the Patriarch of Georgia—who was appointed years ago—has been suggesting to introduce a law against offence of religious feelings.

Tamara Grdzelidze is a Georgian Orthodox theologian who teaches at the Ilia State University in Tbilisi, Georgia.