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Georgia: Defrocked Priest Sentenced For Religious Violence

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch --> A Tbilisi court on 31 January sentenced an excommunicated Orthodox priest to six years in jail on charges of inciting violence against Georgia's religious minorities. Basil Mkalavishvili was convicted of organizing assaults on Jehovah's Witnesses, Baptists, and Pentecostal Evangelists in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The New York-based group Human Rights Watch welcomed the sentence. Western and Georgian rights activists had long been demanding jail terms for Mkalavishvili and other Orthodox hard-liners responsible for religious violence.

Prague, 1 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The trial of Basil Mkalavishvili has been under way since last August.

Yesterday, it took three hours for the presiding judge, Temur Tabatadze, to read the verdict. As soon as he finished, cries of protest rose from Mkalavishvili supporters who had crammed into Tbilisi's Vake-Saburtalo district courtroom.

Mkalavishvili, known to his followers as Father Basil, was convicted of violence against Georgia's Christian minority groups and sentenced to six years in jail, including the 10 months he has already served in pretrial custody.

One of his closest associates, Petre Ivanidze, received a four-year jail sentence on similar charges. Another of Mkalavishvili’s followers, identified as Avto Koroshinadze, was sentenced to 12 months in prison for resisting arrest. Four other defendants were released.

Addressing reporters from the dock, Mkalavishvili claimed the court's decision put his life in danger, claiming unspecified groups or individuals were seeking to kill him. "The Prosecutor-General's Office is a nest of Judas. There is no such thing as an [independent] Prosecutor-General's Office, or [an independent] judiciary in Georgia. Everything was done to ensure that I would get six years. I want to warn the press that 'they' are preparing to physically eliminate me. Two attempts have already been made, but now that I am sentenced to six years in jail 'they' will eliminate me physically. I call upon every one to defend the Orthodox faith."

Mkalavishvili’s lawyers, Keti Bekauri and Levan Samushia, denied the charges brought against their client and said they would appeal the sentence. But the international Human Rights Watch nongovernmental organization welcomed the verdict. In a statement released in New York yesterday, the group said, "One of the worst perpetrators of violence against religious minorities in Georgia has finally been brought to justice."
"One of the worst perpetrators of violence against religious minorities in Georgia has finally been brought to justice."

Mkalavishvili was arrested last year in a violent police raid on his self-proclaimed parish in Tbilisi's Gldani district.

Along with members of other Georgian hard-line Orthodox groups -- such as Paata Bluashvili's Jvari (The Cross) -- Mkalavishvili’s supporters are blamed for numerous mob attacks against Jehovah's Witnesses, Baptists, Pentecostal Evangelists, and other Protestant groups throughout the country.

From the late 1990s on, religious hard-liners have been interrupting Protestant religious services, burning non-Orthodox religious literature, ransacking property, and beating up followers of what are generally known in Georgia as "nontraditional" faith groups.

Following one of the most violent onslaughts ever recorded, then President Eduard Shevardnadze in October 1999 appeared on national television to condemn religious violence and order an investigation into Mkalavishvili's activities.

Mkalavishvili was first indicted on minor charges in 2001. But he was not arrested and continued to perform religious services at his Gldani church with no interference by the authorities. Representatives of religious minority groups and human rights activists blame the Georgian police and judiciary for closing their eyes to violence against non-Orthodox groups.

Mkalavishvili and some of his closest associates were eventually arrested in March 2004, following Shevardnadze's ouster and the ascent of a new political leadership. At the time of Mkalavishvili's arrest, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who had been elected just two months earlier, said he was determined to put an end to religious violence in the country:

"Who are these people who defend these extremists? They are those who refuse to have a cross represented on the [new] Georgian national flag. They are those who instead use the cross as a weapon to hit people on the head. Such violence is the worst possible offense to Christ and religion. It is our duty to defend Christianity, because Christianity is based on tolerance, not violence. It is based on love. These people [Mkalavishvili’s followers] are sowing hatred, extremism, and violence, and the state will respond with equal violence," Saakashvili said.

Neither Saakashvili nor the Georgian Patriarchate had any immediate reaction to Mkalavishvili's sentencing.

Although a church synod excommunicated Mkalavishvili in 1995, religious authorities did nothing to stop his religious services or close down his Gldani parish. Critics have blamed the patriarchate for maintaining a tolerant attitude toward Orthodox hard-liners and using them as a safeguard against Protestants and Catholics.

At the time of Mkalavishvili's arrest, Giorgi Andriadze was Patriarch Ilia's representative in parliament and the chief spokesman of the Orthodox Church. Andriadze, who left his post two months ago to begin a secular organization to promote religious values in society, then attempted to shift the blame of religious violence on non-Orthodox believers:

"With regard to our relations with Mkalavishvili, he is no longer a member of our church. We've always said that religious violence is unacceptable. But we've always said that a reason for this violence is the Jehovah's Witnesses' aggressive proselytism," Andriadze said.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) yesterday noted that the climate of religious freedom has improved under the new Georgian leadership. But it also said much remains to be done to ensure equal rights for all worshippers, regardless of their faith. It also called upon the country's secular authorities to refrain from "inflammatory rhetoric" against alien influences -- a direct allusion to some of Saakashvili's recent political statements.

Rachel Denber, the acting director of HRW’s Europe and Central Asia Division, said in a statement, "We hope [Mkalavishvili’s sentence] is just the beginning of a clear policy against tolerance of violence and discrimination on account of faith."