Georgian Priest On The Rampage

An extremist Georgian priest is continuing to attack and intimidate his enemies, even as he faces criminal proceedings.

Georgian Priest On The Rampage

An extremist Georgian priest is continuing to attack and intimidate his enemies, even as he faces criminal proceedings.

The prosecution of Father Basili Mkalavishvili has not stopped the renegade Georgian priest and his supporters - wielding clubs, crosses and bibles - from continuing their campaign of violence against religious minorities and human rights observers.

On April 22, hundreds of Father Basili's followers surrounded and threatened foreign observers trying to take notes at the district court in Tbilisi where the cleric is being tried. The trial was adjourned until May 16, due to the non-appearance of the prosecutors.

Mkalashvili is being prosecuted for a string of violent attacks on Georgian religious groups, human rights campaigners and media organisations. His most frequent victims have been Jehovah's Witnesses, who have recorded more than 80 violent assaults against them over two and a half years, with more than a thousand of their followers suffering injuries.

Yet Mkalavishvili himself continues to behave with supreme self-confidence, apparently because of support from within the law enforcement agencies meant to be curbing him.

"I'll do my utmost to prevent anti-Orthodox sects taking root in Georgia," Mkalavishvili told IWPR. "The forces of the Antichrist around the world have united to call down the rule of Satan in this country." The priest, who has been excommunicated from the Georgian Orthodox Church, blamed "dishonesty and corruption" amongst clergymen for driving believers away from the country's main faith.

Father Basili's notoriety began on October 17, 1999, when he led a violent mob of around 200 people, who stormed a private compound, where 120 Jehovah Witnesses had gathered for a meeting. The intruders beat the worshippers with iron crosses and wooden clubs. Sixteen people needed hospital treatment, while Fati Tabagari, a mother of two, suffered permanent damage to one eye.

Although a videocassette of the attack was later shown on television and seventy victims applied to the prosecutor's office, no official reaction followed.

For his enemies, the priest cuts a frightening figure. He is in his fifties, tall and well built, with a large greying beard and big green eyes. Although poorly educated, he is skilled at quoting the bible and has a knack of speaking to a crowd, which he does more like a military commander than a parish priest.

The attacks he leads follow a similar pattern. Father Basili and his supporters, carrying clubs and icons, storm into a property. After destroying the religious literature and insulting the worshippers, both verbally and physically, they threaten them with more beatings should they arrange their prayer meetings again.

As well as Jehovah's Witnesses, their targets have included Evangelists, Pentecostalists, Baptists, a prominent local NGO, the Liberty Institute, the United Bible Society, the respected Rezonansi newspaper and the office of government ombudswoman Nana Devdariani.

Critics say that some policemen, far from cracking down on the lawless priest, have been protecting him. "When I received the complaints from Jehovah's Witnesses I talked to the then police chief Soso Alavidze," said Elene Tevdoradze, chairwoman of the parliamentary committee for human rights.

"He promised to heighten security at Jehovah's Witnesses meetings and asked for the addresses of these places. I took all the addresses from Jehovah's Witnesses and passed them over to Alavidze. However, no safety measures were taken to protect the victims of the attacks and the list I gave the police chief ended up in hands of Mkalavishvili."

When Father Basili finally appeared in court on January 25 this year, he used the occasion to pursue his campaign further, addressing the judge through a megaphone. A restraining order was issued against the priest. It restricts him from leaving Tbilisi, but he ignored it.

The US-based group Human Rights Watch, which attended most of the proceedings, complained in a letter to President of Georgia Eduard Shevardnadze that the conduct of the trial "has served to further intimidate and humiliate victims of religious mob violence". The organisation said the court officials had "turned a blind eye" to open assaults on journalists and observers at the trial in August 2000.

In the mean time, attacks against religious minorities have continued. A crowd of nearly hundred people led by Mkalavishvili blocked a thoroughfare in one Tbilisi suburb and set up their own checkpoint. The crowd filtered traffic, seeking cars and buses taking Jehovah's Witnesses to a planned convention in the southern Georgian town of Marneuli. Those found were savagely beaten and their vehicles damaged.

On the day his trial opened, Mkalavishvili led more than one hundred of his supporters in an assault on Television Company Stereo One. The attackers threatened to destroy the studio unless it ceased broadcasting a religious discussion programme which had been produced in association with an Evangelical Protestant Church. The company acquiesced to the protestors' demands.

Christian Presber, the Jehovah's Witnesses' spokesman in the Caucasus, said that Father Basili was acting with impunity because of top-level support. "We have heard from various credible human rights organisations that this whole campaign is a part of a plan put together by particular fascist-oriented forces in the Georgian government," he said. "They have initiated paper investigation of these attacks by this defrocked priest but they don't really ever take any actions against him."

Father Basili was unapologetic. "As you know there is an ongoing trial," he said. "I warned that the Lord wouldn't tolerate oppression of the Church and two weeks after I said this an earthquake shook Georgia (a reference to a moderately strong earthquake that occurred in Tbilisi on April 11). If they don't stop persecuting me, there will be another much bigger earthquake that will flatten Tbilisi."

Although the Georgian Orthodox Church has dissociated itself from the persecution of other religious groups and the patriarch Ilya II has called for an end to the violence, there is evidence that it is continuing because of public support. There have been some reports of priests in the provinces leading their parishioners in violent attacks on non-Orthodox believers.

Many Georgians fear that the new Christian sects are undermining their traditional church. "Faith has always been the key agent to save Georgia through the critical turns of its history," said Tamila Katamadze, a schoolteacher. "Although I don't sympathise with Father Basili's aggressive forms of fighting, I believe there should be a law banning Jehovah's Witnesses as well as other active cults from converting people."

On the other hand, many other Georgians have raised their voices in protest against the violence. More than 130,000 citizens mostly of the Orthodox faith signed a petition calling the government to stop the violent campaign against religious minorities. In response to international pressure from the US government, the Council of Europe and others, President Shevardnadze stated that he would hold a special meeting on this issue soon.

Giorgy Lomsadze is a reporter with Georgia Today newspaper

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