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RELIGIOUS INTOLERANCE

IN THE REPUBLIC OF GEORGIA

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Background of Georgia: its history, religion and laws:

This essay discusses religious intolerance in the Republic of Georgia. It is unrelated to religious intolerance in the state of Georgia in the U.S. South.

The Republic of Georgia is located East of the Black Sea, West of Azerbaijan, North of Turkey and Armenia, and South of Russia. Christianity was introduced into Eastern Georgia circa 336 CE. It became the second state in the world to declare Christianity as its state religion; the first was Armenia. Starting in the 16th century, the country was involved in a struggle between Persia and Turkey. In the 18th century it became a vassal of Russia in exchange for protection from the Persians and Turks.

Georgia was annexed by the USSR in 1922. Individuals' religious beliefs in the USSR were influenced by three groups, which were pulling in three different directions: 

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The communist government, which strongly advocated Atheism.

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The official Orthodox churches which, in many cases, compromised with the government.

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Orthodox Christian minorities which attempted to remain true to the Orthodox faith, and refused to bend their beliefs and practices to meet government demands. They were not in communion with the official Orthodox Patriarchates. They remained underground and were severely oppressed. They identify themselves as Orthodox traditionalists.

Georgia declared its independence in 1991. It joined the Council of Europe in 1999. "A number of separate Orthodox Christian minority communities, both lay and monastic," still exist in Georgia. They are in a state of great friction with the official Orthodox church that has occasionally caused violence. 10

Georgia currently has a population of about five million people whose religious affiliations are approximately:

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Orthodox Christian: 83%, including
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Georgian Orthodox 65%

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Russian Orthodox 10%

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Armenian Orthodox 8%

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Muslim 11%

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Other, including Atheists, Protestant Christians, etc: 6% 1

The Orthodox Church has a special status, including tax-exemptions not granted to other faiths. Baptists have been active in Georgia since the 19th century. Jehovah's Witnesses have been actively proselytizing there since 1953; they have about 15,000 members in the country. Pentecostal and other Protestant faiths are also present. All are referred to as "nontraditional faiths."

The Georgian Constitution guarantees "complete freedom of religious belief and confessions as well as the independence of the church from the state." However, its concept of the separation of church and state differs greatly from the wall of separation maintained in the U.S. The Georgian constitution recognizes the "special importance of the Georgian Orthodox Church in Georgian history." On 2001-MAR-30, parliament amended the constitution to make room for a concordat between church and state that, when finalized, will probably give the Georgian Orthodox Church additional special privileges:

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Its clergy will be exempted from military service.

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Chaplains would serve in the military and in prisons.

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Orthodox beliefs would be taught in public schools.

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The sole right to grant permits for the construction of any Orthodox Church, presumably including Armenia, Georgian and Russian Orthodox churches.

When the concordat is finalized, the church and state in Georgia will no longer be independent of each other.

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The role of the Georgian Orthodox Church:

Many Georgians consider affiliation with Orthodox Christianity to be an essential factor in Georgian national identity. They see other Christian groups to be a threat to the traditional position of dominance of their church, and thus a threat to the nation as a whole. They object to the vigorous proselytism, "music and behavior which they do not associate with prayer or religion, and teachings which come across as blatant blasphemies." of other faith groups. 10 Some feel that the practices of non-Orthodox Christians defile the Orthodox Church. The New York Times reports that the "Orthodox Church has become increasingly linked to nationalist causes, and some of its followers, and even some of its priests, have been implicated in the attacks on other faiths. Others have been openly critical. In [2002] June, Zurab Tskhovrebadze, a spokesman for the Georgian Patriarch, Ilya II, called the Jehovah's Witnesses 'a fifth column whose activities are directed against Georgia.' " 12

In 2002-June, Bishop Levan Pirtskhalaishvili, secretary to Patriarch Ilya II, wrote to the owner of a stadium in Tbilisi suggesting that he not rent it to a Jehovah's Witnesses group for a gathering. He warned that such meetings arouse "...the just indignation of a very large portion of society." The gathering was canceled. 13

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Sponsored link:

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Religious intolerance and violence in Georgia:

According to the New York Times, "In many of the former republics of the Soviet Union, including Russia, the birth of freedom has brought with it religious tensions, particularly between the predominant Orthodox churches and newly emergent religions and sects. But Georgia is unique in the intensity of the violence toward religious minorities, and in the evidence of official complicity in the attacks." 12

The Republic of Georgia is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. These require the police and the rest of the government to protect individuals' freedom of religion, religious speech and religious assembly. They have ignored their responsibilities and have largely failed to investigate and prosecute those responsible for violent, religiously motivated, hate-crimes. As a result, these assaults are increasing in frequency and ferocity. In the area of religion, mob rule has taken over the country.

According to a 2001-AUG report Human Rights Watch: "Non-Orthodox Christian worshippers throughout Georgia have been the targets of at least eighty violent attacks by civilian groups in the past two years. The government has made no serious efforts to criminally investigate-let alone prosecute-the perpetrators, and in some cases, police themselves violently broke up prayer gatherings. Attacks have grown more frequent with the ensuing atmosphere of impunity. Assailants stalk worshippers on their way to or from prayer meetings, or break up prayer meetings in private homes. They beat congregants, at times inflicting serious injuries, ransack private homes, destroy property, and burn religious literature. The assailants target the victims because of their faith and seek to intimidate congregants into abandoning their religious practices." 2

In 2001-OCT, the State Department's annual report on religious freedom said that religious freedom in Georgia were deteriorating. The report described attacks against Jehovah's Witnesses, Baptists, members of the Assembly of God and members of the Hare Krishna sect. 12

There are allegations that Vasili Mkalavishvili (aka Basili Mkalavishvili, and Father Basil) has led many of the attacks. He is an priest from Tbilisi who has been defrocked by the Georgian Orthodox Church. Most news sources identify him as a "ex-priest" or "defrocked priest." However, this is only part of the story. He is affiliated within one of the Orthodox Christian minority communities, where he is recognized as a priest.

He has been reported as saying that: "We are not beating anybody. There were a few times when we had to fight back."

"Human rights groups...[in Georgia] say Mkalavishvili's followers have staged scores of attacks during the past three years against Jehovah's Witnesses and members of the Assembly of God, Baptists and other non-Orthodox worshippers. Mobs have beaten worshippers, ransacked meeting halls and burned religious literature. At least 30 people have been injured in these rampages, some seriously. Some of the assaults, witnesses say, have been committed as police stood by and Georgian television news crews taped the violence, without intervening. Mkalavishvili - known here as Father Basili - has not been convicted of any charges connected with the attacks. He straightforwardly describes his goals. 'My aim is to stop these sects from going around and knocking on people's doors and forcing them to change the Orthodox doctrines of the Georgians, which have been here for centuries,' he says. He says he respects Georgia's constitutional guarantee of religious freedom. 'We don't prohibit freedom of religion. But they should not make any propaganda. They should keep to themselves.' " 13

The local press widely reports that he accuses the Jehovah's Witnesses "of desecrating Orthodox churches, of being members of a suicide cult and encouraging followers to try to walk on water." 13 We have been unable to find any reports of evidence that supports such allegations.

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Recent developments:

bullet1999-MAY: Guram Sharadze filed a lawsuit in Tbilisi's Isani-Samgori district court. Tbilisi is the capital of the Republic of Georgia. He sought to annul the 1998 registration of the Jehovah's Witnesses' registration as a civil association. He argued that the Watch Tower Society (WTS) threatened the Georgian state and identity. He lost the case. He then argued that deregistration was required because Georgia lacked a law on religion. The Georgian Supreme Court agreed. However the highest court stated that the Witnesses organization was not banned. Members were still free "to change their belief, either alone or jointly with others, either publicly or in private" and retained the "freedom to manifest their religion or beliefs, from the viewpoint of religious teachings and having rituals."
bullet1999-MAY-29: The police in Tbilisi "violently broke up a prayer meeting of the Assembly of God, threatening and beating several participants." 2
bullet1999-JUL-7: According to Human Rights without Frontiers, "The patriarchate of Georgia officially demanded the prohibition of the activity of the sect of 'Jehovah's Witnesses.' A representative of the patriarchate, Georgy Andriadae, declared that the activity of the Jehovists, who are 'representatives of totalitarian religious forces,' is dangerous for society. The Georgian Orthodox Church has charged that the activity of 'Jehovah's Witnesses' drives members of the sect to psychological illnesses and alienates a person from public life." 11
bullet1999-OCT-17: Also in Tbilisi, Vasili Mkalavishvili allegedly led a mob which attacked a group of Protestants. Sixteen people were injured, several seriously. Perpetrators were charged. One admitted in court that she had burned Witness' literature and would do so again. They were acquitted. The court found that two of the victims were guilty of "hooliganism." They were sentenced to probation. According to the WTS, "During a recess of the trial on August 16, 2000, a mob of about 80 Orthodox extremists stormed the courtroom. Security guards watched but did not interfere. On August 17 outside the courthouse, the same mob attacked and threw rocks at a journalist and a human rights advocate who were present to observe the trial." 7
bullet2000-SEP: Ursula Schleicher, a member of the European Parliament and chairperson of the delegation to the EU-Georgia Parliamentary Cooperation Committee, issued a statement on SEP-5, condemning an AUG-16 attack. It said, in part, "I regard this kind of attack as an outrageous attack against the fundamental human rights to which Georgia is committed as a signatory of the European Convention for Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms." 8
bullet2000 - Year end: The Jehovah's Witnesses group in Georgia reported that there were 38 violent attacks of their members during the year 2000. These included looting of a WTS convention site by a mob, allegedly with the support of the local police.
bullet2001-FEB: A group of 300 Jehovah's Witnesses were attacked by a group of fifteen to twenty people, using clubs, large crosses, and Bibles. They were assisted by police. 2
bullet2001-MAR: The Keston News Service, reported that Mkalavishvili stated: "We won't allow sectarians to build their Satanic churches. They are against Orthodoxy and insult Jesus Christ. They are selling out Orthodoxy and the Georgian soul." 2

About 150 people, including four Orthodox priests attacked a prayer meeting in the town of Sachkhere.

Eduard Shevardnadze, president of Georgia, issued a decree which ordered the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the General Procuracy and the Ministry of State Security to stop religious hate-crimes and "to take extraordinary measures to identify and punish those guilty." It seems to have had little effect.

The Georgian Supreme Court condemned the "acts of vandalism" perpetrated by Mkalavishvili, "and other expressions of religious extremism and intolerance..." The Court called on "all law enforcement structures to take appropriate measures against those persons who place themselves above the law and because of religious motives take it upon themselves [to] execute 'justice.' Such acts are not only illegal, but they also create a serious danger for the public and the State." Again, this had little effect. Many local police forces continue to interpret the Supreme Court decision of 1999 as if it banned gatherings of Jehovah's Witnesses.

Georgia Customs seized twenty tons of WTS literature.
bullet2001-APR: "...a group wielding sticks spiked with nails broke up a prayer meeting in the Svanetisubani district of Tbilisi. The attackers broke windows, furniture and electrical equipment, beat worshippers with...spiked sticks, and burned religious literature in a large bonfire on the street." 2 The police arrived during the attack, then left. After waiting for the assailants to finish their job, the police returned. Vasili Mkalavishvili allegedly said: "I am very satisfied, for today we have saved 5,000 Orthodox souls, and did not allow these apostles of the Antichrist, these representatives of the sect of the Jehovists, to spiritually poison the Georgian people."

A mob of about 60 attacked "three U.S. Assemblies of God resident personnel and seven visiting U.S. Assemblies of God pastors...as they surveyed, prayed over and took pictures of the future site of a Bible school in Tbilisi." 9

A group of about twenty people broke up a prayer meeting in the town of Rustavi, beating those attending the meeting and some neighbors who had come to their defense. There are allegations that the mob was led by Paata Bluashvili, a member of "Cross." This is an ultra-Orthodox organization dedicated to prevent the spread of non-traditional groups in Georgia.

United States Congressman Christopher Smith, Co-Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, commented: "A person, whether he or she be a Jehovah's Witness, or any other minority faith, should never, ever be singled out and subjected to harassment, beatings, and abuse because of that...We've been following the worsening developments in Georgia against minority faiths, and Jehovah's Witnesses in particular...The glide path here is a negative one. That mobs are being incited to not only burn literature, which is totally contrary to the Helsinki accords—it reminds some of us of the book burnings that happened during the Nazi years...These mob attacks where police looking askance as people are attacked, beaten, even in courtrooms. And I've seen video evidence of that. It's very, very troubling...Jehovah's Witnesses are being targeted in a very, very cruel way." 6
bullet2001-MAY: About thirty people, believed by eyewitnesses to be followers of Mkalavishvili, attacked about sixty non-traditional worshipers in an apartment in Tbilisi.
bullet2001-JUN: Fifty or sixty men and women attacked a prayer meeting of eighty-six people in Tbilisi. The police arrived, but did not detain the perpetrators.

Jehovah’s Witnesses filed an application with the European Court of Human Rights. They asked the Court to rule that the government of Georgia must prosecute perpetrators of the brutal...attack on the Gldani Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses on 1999-OCT-17. Eyewitnesses allege that the attack was carried out by Orthodox priest Vasili Mkalavishvili and his followers.
bullet2001-AUG: The Jehovah's Witnesses in Georgia reported that their members were attacked forty times during the first seven months of 2001. This was more than had occurred during the entire twelve months of 2000. Whereas most of the attacks in 1999 and 2000 had been located in Tbilisi, violence during 2001 had been more widespread throughout the country. Also additional groups were involved: other nationalistic organizations, church clergy, and neighbors of non-traditional congregants.

During an interview on a BBC religious program Mkalavishvili allegedly said: "It is terrible, terrible that today Georgia is being invaded by dark satanic forces of the outside. Many do not understand that Georgia's salvation is in Orthodoxy, and that those sects, and especially Jehovah's Witnesses, are trying to destroy our centuries'-long tradition. This is why I and my followers have declared a battle against those sects and we are determined to carry on fighting them." He was also reported as saying: "Thank God that among our security services and policemen there are people who are willing to help me: they realize how dangerous it is to have these sects in Georgia." 3 Nobody has been found guilty of religious violence in this case.
bullet2002-FEB: A mob looted the offices of the Baptist church. They hundreds of Bibles and other books. 12
bullet2002-JUL: A dozen young men beat six staff members of the Liberty Institute in Tbilisi, the capital city of Georgia. The group advocates religious freedom, and has been complaining of the mob attacks. 12
bullet2002-AUG: A mob interrupted a planned revival meeting by Jehovah's Witnesses in Kaspi, Georgia. Two dozen men, identified as Greek Orthodox members by their jewelry, ransacked the home of the host, Ushangi Bunturi. They burned Bibles, religious pamphlets and Bunturi's possession. They poured diesel fuel into the baptismal pool. Police were present during the violence, but it is not clear whether they took part in the destruction or simply observed it. Bunturi commented: "You can see what freedom of faith, what freedom of assembly we have. They say we have these [religious] rights, but they do not act on them." Gennadi Gudadze, the director of the Union of Jehovah's Witnesses, said that this is the latest in at least a  dozen attacks on Witnesses in the year 2002. 12

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Comments:

There are three institutions in Georgia who have the power to terminate these acts of violence against nontraditional believers:

bulletThe government and the courts: They have issued statements critical of the violence, but have not effectively prosecuted the perpetrators. If those responsible were given significant jail sentences, the assaults might quickly dissipate.
bulletThe Orthodox church: Unfortunately, they have little power over the break-away Orthodox traditionalist groups which seem to be primarily responsible for the attacks. The Church has issued statements attacking Jehovah's Witnesses, but none calling on citizens to respect individual religious freedoms.
bulletThe Orthodox traditionalist groups: They appear to be primarily responsible for the violence against nontraditional faith groups.  They seem to be disinclined to stop their attacks.

A contributing factor is the location of the state Georgia itself. It lies along the path of proposed oil pipelines from Russia. The pipelines are needed in order to reduce the reliance of Western countries on oil from the Middle East. The U.S. cannot take an active role combating religious oppression in Georgia without threatening the future of the pipelines.

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References:

  1. Time Almanac 2001, Page 774.
  2. "Memorandum to the U.S. Government on Religious Violence in the Republic of Georgia," 2001-AUG-29, at: http://www.hrw.org/backgrounder/eca/
  3. Keston News Service, news release of 2001-MAR-28.
  4. "Focus on Faith," report on the Jehovah's Witnesses in Georgia; BBC World Service, 2001-AUG-7.
  5. "News Releases: Republic of Georgia," WTS, at: http://www.jw-media.org/
  6. "Will Georgia protect religious freedom?" WTS, at: http://www.jw-media.org/
  7. "Court in Republic of Georgia convicts victims of mob attack on Jehovah's Witnesses," WTS, at: http://www.jw-media.org/
  8. "European Parliament delegation condemns violence against Jehovah's Witnesses in Republic of Georgia," WTS, at: http://www.jw-media.org/
  9. "Mob Attacks Assembly of God Group in Republic of Georgia," Religion Today. Online at: http://www.angelfire.com/co/
  10. "Audiatur et alia pars: Comments on the Keston Institute's Recent Criticism of the Patristic Resistance Movement in the Georgian Orthodox Church," Orthodox Christian Information Center, at: http://www.orthodoxinfo.com/resistance/
  11. Mikhail Vignansky, "Georgian Patriarchate Declares War on Sectarians," Human Rights Without Frontiers, at:  http://www.hrwf.net/English/georgia99e.html
  12. Steven Lee Myers, "Attacks on Minority Faiths Rise in Post-Soviet Georgia," New York Times, 2002-AUG-17, at: http://www.nytimes.com/2002/08/17/
  13. Douglas Birch, "Keeping the faith, forcefully: Doctrine: Georgian Orthodox worshippers are accused of violent attacks on members of other religious groups that have emerged since the collapse of the Soviet system," 2002-SEP-4, SunSpot.net, at: http://www.sunspot.net/news/nationworld/

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Copyright © 2001 & 2002 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2002-SEP-5
Author: B.A. Robinson

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