Tbilisi Episcopal Church, a refuge for LGBTQ + people in Georgia, shaken by homophobic attacks – Episcopal News Service


Anti-LGBTQ + protesters burn a rainbow banner ahead of the Pride Week March for Dignity in Tbilisi, Georgia on July 5, 2021. Photo: Irakli Gedenidze / Reuters

[Episcopal News Service] Members of one of the Episcopal Church’s most isolated congregations – the St. Nino Episcopal Mission in Tbilisi, Georgia – have found themselves at the forefront of the country’s violent conflict over LGBTQ + rights, over the status of the congregation as one of only two LGBTQ + – affirming churches in the country.

On July 5, hundreds of far-right anti-LGBTQ + extremists revolted in the streets of Tbilisi before a pride march scheduled for later in the day, according to Agence France-Presse. They ransacked the Tbilisi Pride offices, destroying the rainbow flags that hung from its balconies and assaulting more than 50 people, most of them journalists, Reuters reported, citing local police.

The organizers canceled the march for fear of further violence. On July 6, thousands of Georgians staged a silent rally in front of Parliament to protest the homophobic riots the day before and to support the LGBTQ + community. However, anti-LGBTQ + groups have also mobilized to counter protest, throwing stones at protesters and police. Overnight, far-right groups took control of the area, shot down and burned the European Union flag flying over the Parliament building, local media Civil.ge reported.

Thoma Lipartiani, the secular cult leader of St. Nino, told Episcopal News Service that anti-LGBTQ + attacks have hit his congregation hard. A former Roman Catholic and Christian theology student, Lipartiani founded the worship community in 2018, leading weekly liturgy services of the Word, as well as Bible studies and English classes. St. Nino’s, which meets in the Cathedral of Peace of the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia and is occasionally visited by a priest, became an official mission of the Episcopal Churches in Europe convening of the Episcopal Church in 2019. According to Lipartiani, St. Nino’s and the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia are the only two LGBTQ + affirming churches in Georgia, and St. Nino’s is the only one to offer gay blessings. (Same-sex marriages are illegal in Georgia.)

Thoma Lipartiani, lay cult leader at the St. Nino Episcopal Mission in Tbilisi, Georgia, leads a service. Photo: Saint-Nino Episcopal Mission

The Georgian Orthodox Church, the country’s dominant denomination, is strongly anti-LGBTQ + and called for the pride parade to be canceled days earlier, saying it “contains signs of provocation, is in conflict with socially recognized moral standards and aims to legalize serious sin. “The condemnations by its leaders of LGBTQ + people have already led to violence. In 2013, Orthodox priests led a crowd that attacked a small group observing a vigil for the International Day against Homophobia on the steps of Parliament, in shouting “Kill them!” then smashing the windows of the van in which the group was trying to escape.

In this context, being an LGBTQ + friendly church has a different meaning than elsewhere, Lipartiani said.

“Friendly” means that in these churches no one will kill you for being gay. Because, for example, in the Orthodox Church, maybe you will be killed, ”he told ENS.

Many members of St. Nino are LGBTQ + and involved in Tbilisi Pride, including Nino Bolkvadze, co-founder of Tbilisi Pride and one of Georgia’s most prominent LGBTQ + activists, and Lipartiani himself. No one was in the office when he was attacked on July 5; the organization had warned everyone to stay home that morning as hate groups gathered in the town, Lipartiani said. Giorgi Tabagari, director of Tbilisi Pride, told CNN his team had to evacuate six times to different locations on Monday due to violent threats.

However, Lipartiani told ENS, a member of the congregation was beaten in the streets that day by a group led by an Orthodox priest. He was bloodied, but is recovering well at home, Lipartiani said.

That evening, a police officer called Lipartiani and advised him not to hold any services this week, warning that extremist groups could target the congregation. As a result, St. Nino will not have service this coming Sunday. Lipartiani also suffered vulgar verbal abuse from neighbors because of the rainbow flag he flies on his window at his home.

“I don’t feel safe, of course,” he told ENS. “I can’t go out with my earring. I cannot say, on the outside, who I am. I can’t even say I’m Episcopalian because they hate other religions as well.

The mantra of far-right groups, he said, is: “Georgia is for Georgian Orthodox Christians and other people are second or third class citizens here, and most of the time they hate LGBTQ people. And while they don’t represent the views of most people in the former Soviet republic, they have terrorized the country with tactics like the riots this week.

Participants hold flags at a July 6, 2021 rally in support of those injured in the July 5 protests, when an LGBTQ + pride march was disrupted by members of violent groups before it cannot begin, in Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo: Irakli Gedenidze / Reuters

“These are groups run by Russia or Russian propaganda. They still love Russia. They still love the Soviet Union. There are not too many [of them]. Most Georgians are pro-European and pro-American. [The extremists] are not numerous but they are very [well]-organized.”

Lipartiani said he and other Georgians were deeply concerned about the government’s apparent reluctance to crack down on these groups and protect LGBTQ + people and journalists. Ahead of the July 5 riot, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili echoed the Georgian Orthodox Church’s call for the Pride Parade to be canceled, calling it “unacceptable to much of Georgian society “. Some news outlets reported that police failed to stop the violence, especially during the incident in front of Parliament.

After the July 5 riot, the U.S. Embassy in Georgia issued a joint statement with 20 other embassies and diplomatic missions in the country condemning the riot as well as “the failure of government and religious leaders. to condemn this violence ”.

“Why they don’t do anything, I don’t know”, Lipartiani. “So I can’t see a bright future – I can’t say it.”

– Egan Millard is associate editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at [email protected]

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