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Georgia: Moves to Curb Religious Intolerance

The government and rights groups want to stop attacks on non-Orthodox Christian communities in Georgia but differ on the means to do so
By Anna Jibuti

The justice ministry circulated a draft act on religious observance among all faith communities and interested NGOs earlier this week, asking them to review it and return their comments. It marks the first attempt by the government to straighten out the legal framework on religion since Georgia declared independence in 1991.


Religious activity in Georgia is currently regulated by articles in the penal code and constitution that guarantee freedom of religion and worship. However, the constitution also grants the Georgian Orthodox Church a "special role".


The new bill, initiated by President Eduard Shevardnadze, has been made necessary by a recent upsurge of violence against religious minorities, which drew criticism from the Council of Europe in April and the US State Department in May.


Jehovah's Witnesses, Pentecostal groups, Baptists and other denominations have all suffered at the hands of Georgia's religious militants. Basile Mkalavishvili is thought to have masterminded most of the attacks. An excommunicated priest, he has founded his own denomination, the Gldansk Orthodox Church, named after the Gldansk district of Tbilisi where he is based.


Mkalavishvili's raiders burn their opponents' religious literature and assault their congregations, often using heavy wooden crosses studded with nails as weapons. The venues where Jehovah's Witnesses and Baptists congregate as well as their private homes have all been targeted.


While the attacks have drawn widespread condemnation, opinions differ on the measures required to stop them. The government maintains that the solution lies in fresh legislation. Others claim that existing laws are quite adequate and simply need to be applied.


"Religious persecution can be stopped by [a new] law," said the deputy justice minister, Zurab Ezugbaya, who said the authorities would consult widely in order to produce "a bill that will really work".


But Giorgy Chkheidze, of the Association of Young Lawyers, argued that Georgia did not need a new law on religion, "It is amply covered by the constitution and the penal code has all the necessary provisions, including remedies against religious extremism." Chkheidze complained that the existing ordinances were not being enforced. "This new bill is a hoax devised to pacify the international watchdogs," he said.


The lawyer's assertion is supported by the fact that no one has yet to go to prison for religious violence, in spite of the existence of copious evidence collected by human rights groups and recorded in police reports over the past two years.


The thugs draw on a popular nationalist sentiment in favour of Orthodoxy as the traditional faith of the people and a corresponding attitude of suspicion towards newer cults as alien implants. Marina Mirianashvili, a teacher, voiced the sentiment of many educated professional when she complained of the "acolytes of imported religions" making use of the country's economic difficulties to "destroy our national identity". Whilst most of those who espouse this view are against violence themselves, religious militants use this reasoning to justify their heavy-handed tactics.


A raid on a Jehovah's Witnesses group in Tbilisi's Gldansk district in October 1999 left 16 seriously injured. On August 17, 2000 Mkalavishvili's followers attacked a group of human rights activists and journalists attending a religious violence trial. In each case, the police took no action.


The authorities were finally forced to take action when a group of American Protestant pastors were attacked in March 2001. Charges were brought against Mkalavishvili and the prosecutor's office in Tbilisi opened 10 criminal investigations into 17 violent incidents involving him and his fanatics. But the case soon collapsed, leaving the latter free to resume their raids with new gusto. Last May, the former priest even published a book glorifying his "crusade against the sects of Satan".


International institutions, including the UN High Commission on Human Rights and the Council of Europe, have attacked the Georgian government for lack of resolve in tackling religious extremism and for its inability to ensure freedom of worship for all.


Responding to the avalanche of hostile comments, President Shevardnadze issued a decree on the protection of human and minority rights on May 17, which forms the basis of the proposed Religions Act.


Deputy Justice Minister Ezugbaya said the new law would introduce "a uniform registration procedure" for all religious groups in the country. "After this bill is enacted, it will be immaterial what you believe in - you could be the Antichrist for all we care - if your charter and other paperwork is in order, you will get registration," he said.


Nevertheless, human rights groups and lawyers remain unconvinced. Chkheidze, like many other experts, singles out the fourth paragraph of the proposed bill, on "Unfair Proselytising", for particular criticism. This is defined as "attempts to convert citizens to your creed by means of ideological or psychological pressure or material benefits" and will be punishable by up to two years in prison.


Chkheidze insisted almost any social or charitable work could be made to fit this definition of "unfair proselytising" and described the term "ideological pressure" as equally vague. "If this wording gets into the final draft, any religious organization can be banned in a second," he said.


The authors of the draft, however, remain convinced that the new law will curb religious intolerance once and for all. "If the law enforcement authorities are still unable to handle religious extremism, at least we (now) will have irrefutable evidence that government is not living up to its commitments," Ezugbaya said.


Anna Jibuti and Levan Ramishvili are staff members of the Freedom Institute, a Tbilisi-based NGO


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