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The former Soviet Republic of Georgia is contending with the aftermath of an episode of mass violence. This past May, in the capital Tbilisi, a mob of thousands attacked a small group of people who were protesting against homophobia. The attack was led by Georgian Orthodox priests. As NPR's Corey Flintoff reports, the incident has raised questions about human rights in Georgia and about the balance of power between church and state.
COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: May 17 marks a yearly event known as IDAHO, the International Day Against Homophobia. Members of Georgia's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community and their supporters obtained a permit to hold a vigil on the steps of parliament. When some leaders of the Georgian Orthodox Church heard about it, they urged their congregation to come to a counter-demonstration, which was promoted as a peaceful and family-oriented event. When the day came, it was anything but peaceful.
(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAMS)
FLINTOFF: Led by Orthodox priests, the crowd overwhelmed the police barrier around a small group of anti-homophobia demonstrators. Video from the clash shows a priest brandishing a stool as a weapon, other priests are heard to curse and yell: Kill them, kill them.
Nino Kharchilava is a project assistant for the Women's Initiative Supporting Group in Tbilisi. She was part of a small group of demonstrators that was hustled into a minibus by police. The bus, too, was overwhelmed by attackers who smashed most of the windows and thrust their hands through the broken glass to get at the demonstrators inside.
NINO KHARCHILAVA: One guy was like hitting on me and I just tried to communicate and tried to say, what are you doing. And when I saw the blood around, and I couldn't figure out whether this blood is mine or not, and then I realized it's not my blood. It's their blood, you know, they were ready to kill themselves for killing us or something. It was really insane.
FLINTOFF: Father Mikael Botkovali is an Orthodox Church spokesman who brought members of his own congregation to the demonstration. He sits in the calm baptistery of his church, surrounded by saints painted in the Byzantine style. Speaking through a translator, Father Botkoveli says the church opposes homosexuality but it doesn't seek to interfere with what gay people do in private. Where the faithful must speak out, he says, is when LGBT people seek to spread what he calls homosexual propaganda.
THE REV. MIKAEL BOTKOVALI: (Through Translator) Religion obliged them to talk to these people and to show them that they're wrong, they're sinners. And he says that even in the Bible it's written that - about these people, that all of them, they will go to Hell.
FLINTOFF: But Father Mikael condemns the violence and says the priests who led it were rightly punished under civil and church law. When pressed, he concedes that the church punishment consists only of suspending the priests from serving for while and sending them to a monastery outside the city until they confess their errors. Some activists say that, so far, the civil punishment hasn't been strong enough to show that Georgia's new government is willing to apply the rule of law to such a popular and powerful institution as the church.
Lasha Bakradze is head of the Georgian Literature Museum in Tbilisi. He helped organize an online petition against homophobic violence. Bakradze says that more than 12,000 signed the petition in its first two days online. He sees the mass violence on May 12th as about more than sexual orientation and traditional values. Bakradze sees the clash as a demonstration of power by extremists who've made their way into the higher levels of the church.
LASHA BAKRADZE: I think that the church in Georgia showed to the government how powerful is the church. And it's dangerous and it is against Georgian statehood.
FLINTOFF: But Archil Kbilashvili, the chief prosecutor of Georgia, says the case is not over and that priests who were involved in the violence still face charges that could require them to serve jail time. And, he says, no matter what the outcome, the case will serve as a key precedent.
ARCHIL KBILASHVILI: We cannot remember when our prosecution office introduced charges against some spiritual leaders. So this is here very important.
FLINTOFF: But LGBT rights groups say they're still waiting for proof that the government will hold those spiritual leaders to account under the law.
Cory Flintoff, NPR News.