Georgia: Religious Bigotry on the Rise

The Georgian state is turning a blind eye to attacks against Jehovah's Witnesses

Georgia: Religious Bigotry on the Rise

The Georgian state is turning a blind eye to attacks against Jehovah's Witnesses

Every Sunday night, a group of Jehovah's Witnesses gather to pray in a private apartment in Rustavi, south of the Georgian capital.

On September 30, they had uninvited guests. Fifteen minutes into their prayer meeting, all hell broke loose as a gang of heavies broke in and started to beat everyone in the room with spiked crosses, cudgels and sticks.

"Complain to whomever you want. We're not afraid of anything," said one of the attackers, later identified as being a member of the ultra-orthodox organization Dzhvari.

There have been eighty such attacks over the past couple of years and they are growing increasingly frequent. Yet the authorities seem uninterested in apprehending the culprits - even though everyone knows who they are.

Many of the attacks were organised and some actually led by Vasili Mkalavishvili, aka Father Basili, a defrocked Georgian Orthodox priest who has set up his own church in Tbilisi.

He has managed to play on nationalist sentiments by accusing the Jehovah's Witnesses and other non-Orthodox bodies of "selling out Orthodoxy and the Georgian soul".

A country continually in economic and political doldrums, Georgia habitually looks for scapegoats. For the past two years, non-Orthodox denominations have fitted the bill and been the target of political and legal clampdowns which, in turn, have stoked the flames of religious bigotry.

Basili himself claims that he has the backing of police and security services. And the lack of arrests suggest this is the case. According to a recently released Human Rights Watch report, police have allegedly been involved on the side of the attackers on several occasions.

"Instead of protecting victims from beatings and pogroms organised by this abnormal flock of Father Basili, police actually help them," said Tbilisi resident Lamzira G. "Police fully support the pogroms."

"We are very surprised by the indifference of Georgia's state structures," said Jehovah's Witnesses spokesman Guram Kvaratslhelia, who says the organisation has appealed to the Georgian parliament on many occasions - without result.

Organised violence against Jehovah's Witnesses and other non-Orthodox groups was sparked in 1998 and 1999 following Orthodox demands that the government crack down on their activities.

At the same time, a lawsuit was filed by deputy Guram Sharadze to deregister the Jehovah Witnesses on the grounds that they threatened the Georgian state and national identity.

The Orthodox Church themselves fought to place greater restrictions on other faiths and although they have come out against Basili's extreme beliefs and measures they haven't helped the situation by calling the Jehovah's Witnesses "an anti-state organisation".

In their attempt to draw attention to their plight, Jehovah's Witnesses are hampered by lacking any solid public sympathy. Polls indicate that many people believe the group pose a threat to Georgian independence.

"Even if we kindly ask them to leave Georgia they won't go," said Tbilisi resident Slava K. "That's why we should simply turn them out, even if it is by force. We will clean our country from their harmful influence."

One police officer told IWPR that he fully supports the pogroms. "They came to our country, although no one was asking them to do so. Their organisation is a state within a state, " he said. " Besides, they don't want to obey Georgian laws. They refuse to serve in our army, forbid their people to give blood transfusions. They should get what they deserve."

Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the UN and the US state department have released numerous documents expressing their concern for and condemnation of religious intolerance in Georgia.

Jehovah's Witnesses see the European Court as their last remaining hope. They are taking their case there. And while those wheels of justice grind away, worshippers will be attending their prayer meetings with a sense of devotion mixed with dread.

Alexander Baramidze is the pseudonym of a freelance journalist based in Tbilisi

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