Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Georgian Muslims Demand Recognition
Batumi mosque - prayers sitting in the street because there is no space inside. (Photo courtesy of Beka Tsikarishvili)
The Muslim community in Georgia´s Black Sea resort of Batumi had been asking the authorities to build a second mosque for many years, but to no avail.
The city´s only mosque, Orta Djame, was built in 1886 and accommodates over 1,500 believers. But still, during Friday prayers an overspill of hundreds was forced to congregate outside.
Frustrated over a perceived lack of interest from the state, a group of Muslims decided to take matters into their own hands.
A group founded in January had within a month had collected 12,000 signatures in support of building a new mosque in Batumi, Georgia´s second largest city and capital of the country´s southwestern Adjara Autonomous Republic.
The signatures were then forwarded to the president, prime minister and other senior officials.
A dedicated fund was also created, and on September 7 the group purchased a plot of land. They are now awaiting permission to start building a new mosque.
Community members say that the issue reflects wider concerns over the status of Muslims in this predominately Orthodox Christian country.
According to the Mufti of Georgia, Beglar Kamashidze, the necessity of building a mosque had been under discussion for more than 15 years.
“The faithful should have a place so they can pray under a roof,” he said.
“This topic has long gone beyond the question of the construction of the mosque as a place of worship,” Tariel Nakaidze, a member of the initiative group and chairman of the Union of Georgian Muslims, told IWPR.
“Ignoring the demands of the Muslims for years is already a measurement of democracy in the country,” he said.
According to the 2014 census, every ninth person out of Georgia’s population of 3.7 million is a Muslim.
In Adjara, an area of the country occupied by the Ottoman Empire between the 17th and 19th century, the vast majority of Muslims are ethnic Georgians whose ancestors converted to Islam during that time.
But while the overall population of Adjara decreased from 376,000 in 2002 to 334,000 in 2014, the number of Muslims living there has increased. In 2002 they made up 30 per cent of the population, which by 2014 had grown to 40 per cent.
When fundraising for the Batumi mosque began, the Mufti met with Archil Khabadze, then head of Adjara´s local government. Khabadze promised that he would consult with Georgia´s Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili about the construction of the mosque and their petition would be answered without fail. However, Khabadze later resigned on July 6, and the issue has remained unsolved.
“This is a good demonstration of the indifference of the state,” Nakaidze said.
In 2014, the previous Georgian prime minister Irakli Garibashvili created the State Agency for Religious Affairs for the purpose of better communicating with religious organisations and providing them with assistance.
According to the agency´s chairman, Zaza Vashakmadze, the petition is under consideration.
“Georgia is a democratic, free country, and everyone has the freedom to express his opinion. … It is another matter how the state conducts itself or what resources and possibilities it has at its disposal to respond to these demands,” said Vashakmadze about the prospects of the appeal.
Georgian law does not directly obligate the state to provide places for worship for religious groups, but the community had argued that because of discrimination and exclusion, government support would be an important symbolic step.
Many in the Muslim community claim the authorities have failed to treat all religious institutions equally. This has alienated the Muslim community and exacerbated tensions with the country’s Christians.
Experts warn of a danger of encouraging radicalisation, which has already manifested itself in other parts of Georgia, such as in the adjacent region of Guria as well as in Kvemo Kartli and in the Pankisi Gorge in the Kakheti region, where many Muslims also reside.
“Muslims need an economic and social environment in which they can develop,” said Tamta Mikeladze, civil and political rights programme director at the Human Rights Education and Monitoring Center (EMC) in Tbilisi.
“Based on the fact that they do not succeed in Georgia, they go mainly to Turkey. Then they return to Georgia with a good education, but they are not given space to develop,” she continued, adding that this did not encourage integration.
NGOs have also accused the Georgian state of selectively financing religious groups.
According to a joint study by the Tolerance and Diversity Institute (TDI) and EMC, the Orthodox Church in Georgia received a total of 28 million lari (12.1 million US dollars) from the state in 2013. All other religious minorities received a total of four million lari (1.7 million dollars).
The 2015 report of the Public Defender Ucha Nanuashvili, Georgia´s official ombudsman, stated that the unfair distribution of funding to religious groups was an ongoing problem.
“The state cannot ensure the full use of religious freedoms to the religious minorities and is unable to develop a results-oriented strategy against containing hate crime and systemic discrimination, to respond effectively to a specific crime, faithfulness to religious neutrality and the principles of secularism,” the report read.
According to TDI director Eka Chitanava, the Patriarchate of the Orthodox Church wields significant influence and the state does not want to offend the country´s dominant religious group.
“That is why this subject is politically important and is more than issuing a permit for the construction of a religious building,” she said.
Chitanava noted a previous proposal in 2012 in which discussions about Turkey building a mosque on the Georgian side of the border for the Batumi residents led to political controversy.
“The Patriarchate has never had a problem with the construction of a church in any area of any city in Georgia. But for the Muslim congregation, the largest minority religious group, in second place in Georgia, obstacles have been created regarding the construction of the mosque. This is, of course, a restriction of the freedom of religion,” she concluded.
NGO activists say that Muslim communities in Georgia are subject to frequent discrimination.
Tamta Mikeladze from the EMC noted several incidents in recent years.
For example, in 2013, protests broke out in the village of Chela in the Samtskhe-Javakheti region in the south after a newly-built minaret was demolished by local Christians.
(See also Toppled Minaret Provokes Passions in Georgia).
In 2014, in Kobuleti in Adjara, a pig´s head was nailed to the door of a recently-established Muslim school.
According to Chitanava of TDI, the most recent conflict took place in the village of Adigeni in the Samtskhe-Javakheti region in early March.
Adigeni´s only cemetery had been used solely by Christians. That meant that Muslims, who cannot bury their dead in the same cemetery as people of other religions, had to inter relatives in a nearby village instead.
When the State Agency for Religious Affairs suggested the Muslim community apply to the local government for territory for a new cemetery, local Orthodox Christians protested. This led to a two-day standoff.
In the end, Muslims and Christians agreed to share the cemetery, but only after adding a dividing line in the middle.
Soon after this resolution, the death of an 18-year-old girl brought the people of the village together, according to local newspaper Samkhretis Karibche.
On the day of the funeral, local Muslims and Christians both went to the family of the deceased to express their condolences, the newspaper reported. Each performed their own religious funeral rituals.
Luka Pertaia is an IWPR trained journalist and currently works for the Georgian online newspaper Netgazeti.
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