Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Concerns Over Anti-Muslim Discrimination in Georgia

Ethnic Azerbaijanis told they are “only guests” in Christian-majority state.
By Nana Khurashvili

In the village of Talaveri in southern Georgia, Muslim residents lay out mats in the open air for the Friday service, as the muezzin gives the call to prayer from a half-built minaret.

The ethnic Azerbaijani villagers began restoring their century-old mosque in 2009, but had to stop soon afterwards when members of the Union of Orthodox Parents, a radical group of Georgian Christians, turned up and surrounded the site.

Georgian police looked on but did not intervene as the group stood guard and blocked work for four months.

Residents say the group made it clear to them that as Muslim Azerbaijanis, they were not welcome, even though they have always lived in this part of southeast Georgia.

“They told us they wouldn’t let us build a mosque as we were only guests here,” one villager said. “They told us we should worry about the Georgian churches in Saingilo [in neighbouring Azerbaijan] first, and only then would they let us build a mosque.”

The anti-mosque action eventually fizzled out and locals were able to resume construction work in November 2010.

Last month, the United Nations urged Georgia to do more to protect its religious minorities, in a human rights report drafted under the Universal Periodic Review mechanism.

The report cited Council of Europe findings concerning “cases of incitement by certain media to religious intolerance against religious denominations other than the Georgian Orthodox Church”, and “reports of vandalism and attempts to destroy [religious and historical] monuments” belonging to ethnic minorities.

Beka Mindiashvili, the official responsible for minority affairs in at the office of Georgia’s human rights ombudman, said the Talaveri case was part of an alarming wave of anti-Muslim sentiment.

“They insulted Muslims by invading a mosque. It’s part of a larger campaign against the Muslim population,” he said.

The major faith in Georgia is its unique Christian Orthodox Church. Mindiashvili says the country faces no threat of separatism from its Muslim minorities – ethnic Azerbaijanis in the southeast and Georgia-speakers in the southwestern Ajara region – and he is concerned at the level of religious discrimination.

Radical Georgian Orthodox groups have blocked mosque construction in other villages as well.

The stated goal of the Union of Orthodox Parents is the “destruction of the enemies of Orthodoxy in Georgia”. Its leader Avtandil Unigadze also accuses ethnic Azerbaijanis of harbouring separatist intentions that could lead to the loss of more territories like Abkhazia and South Ossetia, where the Georgian government lost de facto control after conflicts in the early 1990s.

“We were just protesting against illegal construction,” Unigadze said, referring to his group’s actions in Talaveri.

“It’s a fact that they’re trying to take our territory. We will lose Kvemo Kartli [region] just like we lost Abkhazia and South Ossetia. They have mosques in every village. As for Talaveri, the local residents don’t even want a mosque, but Baku is ordering them to have one. It’s all about politics.”

Analysts say the activities of such groups put the Georgian government in a difficult position, especially as the widely-respected head of the Orthodox Church, Patriarch Ilia the Second, has never publicly condemned them.

“The authorities’ policy of not intervening in incidents involving radical religious organisations encourages them to engage in further activities,” Nino Gvedashvili of Human Rights House Tbilisi said. “In 2010, there were fewer cases of violence against religious minorities than in 2009, but they were still very significant.”

Gvedashvili said minority faith groups also faced discrimination in the law. Unlike the Georgian Orthodox Church, they have to pay income tax and receive no state assistance. Legally, they are treated as non-government organisations rather than religious communities.

Officials shrug off such concerns. In his submission to the United Nations periodic review, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergi Kapanadze wrote, “The ban on religious discrimination is guaranteed by the constitution. We protect the rights of religious minorities.” 

Nana Khurashvili is a freelance journalist in Georgia.