An LGBT-inclusive church in Tbilisi, Georgia, has been forced to close its doors following threats of homophobic violence.
The US Episcopal Church’s Mission of St Nino is the only church in the whole country that blesses same-sex couples and one of two which welcome LGBT+ folk.
On 5 July, a far-right mob violently rioted in Tbilisi in protest against a planned Pride march, leaving more than 50 journalists who were covering the event injured, including one cameraman who subsequently died.
Nino Bajelidze, a member of the church’s congregation and a co-founder of Tbilisi Pride, told Church Times: “On 5 July, when hate groups led by [the] Georgian Orthodox Church had [an] anti-gay protest, they beat 53 journalists and cameramen; also in this day our active parish member was beaten because his friend was wearing pink trousers.”
The parish member was beaten by a group led by an Orthodox priest. He survived the attack, and is recovering at home.
Having been open in its support of Tbilisi Pride, declaring on Facebook that “every person is equal, regardless of sexual orientation”, the episcopal church now been forced to close its doors due to the threat of further violence.
Bajelidze continued: “Last Sunday, we were not able to have [a] service in church because we have fear of hate groups. We plan not to gather in church on the following Sunday. We are looking forward with hope and ask for your prayers.”
Worship leader feels ‘unsafe’ leaving his home in Georgia
The lay worship leader of St Nino’s, Thoma Lipartiani, told the Episcopal News Service that the closure of the church had been advised by the police, but that he was still receiving abuse in his own home from neighbours because of a Pride flag in his window.
He said: “I feel unsafe, of course. I cannot go outside with my earring. I cannot say outside who I am. I cannot say that I’m Episcopalian, even, because they also hate other religions.”
He added that far-right groups in Georgia argue that the country “is for Georgian Orthodox Christians and other people are second- or third-class citizens here, and mostly they hate the LGBT+ people”.
Since the riots on 5 July, Georgia’s government has faced strident backlash from human rights groups over its failure to take action against the far-right, religious mobs.
Lipartiani said: “Why they are not doing something, I don’t know. So I cannot see a bright future – I cannot say.”
The bishop of the Episcopal Church’s Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe, Mark Edington, said in a statement on social media: The Episcopal Congregation in Tbilisi, Georgia is not a ‘gay church’.
“It is a church — a serving, sending, worshiping community of faithful Christians, some of whom are LGBT+ folks and some of whom are not, but all of whom are witnessing to the relentless, onward march of God’s accepting, reconciling love for all people. I am proud to be counted a Christian among them.
“For now, their congregation is closed — out of fear of attacks. But they will continue to meet — and we will continue to stand with them. And they will reopen.”