ZOiS Spotlight 20/2020

Religion and State in the South Caucasus during the Covid-19 pandemic

by Tsypylma Darieva 27/05/2020
National significance of the Church in Armenia: The supreme head of the Armenian Apostolic Church during the ceremonies on Victory Day 2020. © imago images / ITAR-TASS

By comparison with the Western European nations, the three countries of the South Caucasus – Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan – introduced a raft of measures aimed at stopping the spread of the coronavirus at an impressively early stage. Azerbaijan imposed a quarantine regime, with a strict lockdown and stiff penalties for non-compliance, on 10 March. In early April, these restrictions on public life were reinforced by an electronic permit system: members of the public may only leave their homes if they have received permission to do so via a text message.

The Armenian Government adopted a similar approach: after shutting its borders with Iran on 23 February – five days earlier than Azerbaijan – it declared a state of emergency on 16 March. Here, the measures to curb the pandemic proved controversial, especially after the government imposed tough restrictions on journalists and banned information that did not come from one of its official sources.

The Georgian government – currently engaged in Western-oriented democratisation reforms – also took timely and exemplary action. Schools and nurseries, shops, restaurants, tourist attractions and even cemeteries were closed. A state of emergency was declared on 21 March. On 14 April, Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia announced a 10-day lockdown of the country’s four major cities – Tbilisi, Kutaisi, Batumi and Rustavi.

Religious holidays

The imposition of tough measures to manage the coronavirus crisis coincided with some of the major religious holidays, including Orthodox Easter and Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting. In all three countries of the South Caucasus, the governments appealed to the public to stay at home and not to gather in church, attend mosque for Friday prayers, visit holy sites or go on pilgrimages.

Although most religious institutions remained closed or offered online alternatives, the Georgian Orthodox Church largely continued to hold its traditional services. Despite the government’s exhortations, the churches kept their doors open for Easter celebrations in Georgia, albeit with minimal concessions from the Patriarchate, such as a two-metre social distancing rule. But the government-imposed restrictions were largely ignored by Church and faithful alike. Holy Communion and the associated practice of using a common spoon for the distribution of wine to communicants were sharply criticised, especially by members of the opposition and the liberal churches, due to the high risk of infection. This continued adherence to traditional religious practices has cast the special role and authority of the Orthodox Church, as compared with other faith communities in Georgia, into sharp relief. By contrast, the leaders of Georgia’s Muslims suspended prayer gatherings during Ramadan, while the Catholic Church and the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia opted to livestream Sunday services. Despite the increased risk of the virus being spread by traditional religious practices, the Georgian government seems hesitant to impose emergency rules on the Orthodox Church.

Meanwhile, in neighbouring Armenia, the Armenian Apostolic Church has followed the public authorities’ recommendations on social distancing. Church services and liturgies are now held behind closed doors. Funerals are restricted to brief graveside ceremonies. And the Armenian Church was remarkably quick to

switch to online worship, although members of the congregation may still attend church to pray in solitude.

In Azerbaijan, all the mosques, churches, synagogues and holy sites were closed on government orders as part of the initial package of measures to control the virus. On 17 March, the Administration of Muslims of the Caucasus announced that the faithful had a duty to comply with this decision. The rules remained in force even after the start of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, on 24 April. Regarded since 1993 as Azerbaijan’s most important Muslim holiday, Ramadan took place this year under a strictly observed quarantine regime.

As a consequence, the breaking of the fast each evening (iftar) takes place at home with family. Restaurants that would normally serve traditional food during Ramadan will remain closed until the end of May.

Relations between religion and state

The divergent responses of faith leaders to the measures imposed to deal with the coronavirus crisis reflect not only the cultural and religious diversity of the South Caucasus but also the differences in relations between religion and state. The crisis has revealed the differing approaches for dealing with the issue of the separation of faith and state in the countries of the South Caucasus. In Armenia, the Church has national significance – as it does in Georgia – and is viewed as a resource for the legitimation of power. Nevertheless, during times of crisis, the relationship between the Church and the Armenian state appears to be defined by pragmatism, including a willingness to embrace digitalisation. In Azerbaijan, by contrast, the authoritarian measures imposed on spiritual life reflect the highly centralised nature of its religious policy. Here, the state has a monopoly on the governance of religious life, and this has played a key role in the management of the coronavirus crisis as well. By contrast, the Georgian Church is independent and – notwithstanding the growing criticism from civil society organisations – shares the power-political stage with the government. The resurgence of religion as one of the key characteristic of transition societies since the demise of the Soviet Union takes a different form in each of these three countries and is happening with differing levels of intensity.

Tsypylma Darieva is Senior Researcher at ZOiS Berlin.