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Georgia: Reputation For Tolerance Slipping Amidst Attacks Against Religious Minorities

  • Robert Parsons

Georgia, its people are quick to tell visitors, is home to more than 100 nationalities and all of them get along well together. And in the capital, Tbilisi, they add, churches, mosques, and synagogues exist side by side with little friction. Even today, the courtyards of that lovely city echo with a cacophony of competing tongues -- Georgian, Azerbaijani, Armenian, Russian, Kurdish, and, increasingly, English. Yet this reputation for tolerance is slipping.

Tbilisi, 29 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Eduard waved me over to his car with a big smile. He could spot a foreigner from a kilometer away. He greeted me in English before I had a chance to speak. Within seconds, he was telling me his life story.

Eduard, it turned out, was Greek. Well, half-Greek, he explained. Half-Greek and half-Jewish. More remarkably, he could speak Georgian, Armenian, Azerbaijani, Russian, English, and Hebrew. Ironically, just about the only language he couldn't speak was Greek.

Not long ago, Tbilisi was full of people like Eduard -- a melting pot of cosmopolitan polyglots. But a shadow seems to be creeping over this once joyous city.

Salome Asatiani is a sociologist who recently returned to Georgia after a period of study abroad.

"The state of society is very intolerant at the moment," he said. "I think it goes back to the birth of the so-called national liberation movement. The Soviet ideology was replaced very quickly by nationalist rhetoric with all its implications -- the intensification of religion, the representation of the national ideal or national traditions as the unquestioned pattern that should be followed. It's Georgianess which is promoted, and anything else -- ethnically, politically, or sexually or in any other way -- is marginalized and directly marginalized."

The British theater company Volcano recently presented "L.O.V.E.," a staging of some of Shakespeare's sonnets, at Tbilisi's Marjanishvili Theater.

It was the first night of a tour intended to celebrate 10 years of the British Council in Georgia. But the production featured scenes of sexuality, including homosexuality. The theater's director walked out, ordering actors from his own troupe to follow suit. Within hours, the Georgian Orthodox Church was also protesting.

Volcano's remaining two shows in Georgia were abandoned amidst anonymous threats of vandalism.

A clash of cultures, say some. But others, among them commentator Gogi Gvakharia, the presenter of a popular talk show on Georgian television, think the Orthodox Church has a lot to answer for.

"The church here plays a big role in all this," Gvakharia said. "It's as if words like love, compassion, and compromise have fallen from the church's vocabulary. Now the accent is on words like the law of God, hell, and Satan. Religion and ignorance have become close associates. People are afraid that if they say they don't believe or if they don't visit their local priest something bad will happen to their children. The clergy are scaring them to think in this way. And because these people have no real faith or spiritual values, they believe it when they hear of plots against the church or that Jehovah's Witnesses want to destroy the church."

On 10 July 2002, 10 men burst into the Tbilisi office of the Liberty Institute, a nongovernmental Georgian human rights organization that plays a leading role in opposing religious intolerance. The intruders beat up Liberty's director, Levan Ramishvili, and smashed computers and furniture.

Ramishvili had earned the enmity of the followers of Basili Mkalavishvili, a defrocked Orthodox priest responsible for numerous attacks on religious minorities.

"During the last three or four years, we had more than 700 pogroms organized by different groups," Ramishvili said. "The most colorful group are the so-called Basilists. In some other places, priests of the Orthodox Church are also involved in violence against various religious minorities. When you talk about violence against minorities, first what comes up is usually the Jehovah's Witnesses, but it is not just about them. It means everyone who doesn't belong to traditional religious denominations like the Baptists, the Evangelists, the Pentecostals, and sometimes even Catholics and sometimes even distant Orthodox groups."

The church admits that the problem of religious intolerance exists in Georgia but rejects any suggestion that it is responsible. RFE/RL spoke yesterday with Father Davit Sharashenidze, the head of the press office at the patriarchate.

"Of course, there are people who blame the church for this religious extremism, but such accusations are completely unjust and divorced from reality," Sharashenidze said. "The 2,000-year-old history of the church in Georgia is proof that it is not extremist. As for Basili Mkalavishvili, the church has expelled him from its ranks. We have stated that his methods are totally unacceptable and that all use of force against people who think differently is completely inadmissible."

Mkalavishvili was sentenced last month to three months in prison for his part in five incidents, although he is still at large, hiding from the police.

Meanwhile, the violence continues, prompting 42 public figures in Georgia to write an open letter to the patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church condemning "radical elements" within the church. The letter calls on Patriarch Illia II to resist "increased radicalism and xenophobia." It also urges him to voice concern over the violation of the rights of the country's religious minorities.

Such abuses have prompted condemnation from international organizations, such as the Council of Europe and the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, as well as the U.S. State Department.

Davit of the Georgian Orthodox Church's press office is adamant, however. The church is not involved in violence of any sort, he says.

"The church has nothing to do with this violence. You won't find any evidence of the church calling on people to use force against anyone. It says the only legitimate form of struggle is the word. But violence is in all of us, and when Jehovah's Witnesses come knocking on people's doors and take such a negative and aggressive approach to our national and church traditions, it naturally provokes an aggressive response from some people."

The resentment of minority religious sects in Georgia appears to have become widespread. Gocha Tskitishvili is the director of Tbilisi's IPM public opinion research center.

"About 12 percent of the people of Tbilisi thinks that what Father Basil does is absolutely right," Tskitishvili said. "A further 60 percent disapprove of his methods but think that his ideas are right. In other words, the Jehovah's Witnesses should be opposed, but it isn't necessary to beat them up."

So where is this intolerance coming from? Commentator Gvakharia believes insecurity lies at the heart of the problem: "In periods of crisis like this, people always look for scapegoats. Tolerance genuinely has been a characteristic of the Georgian people, but the ability to be self-critical hasn't. It's easier to create monsters than to blame oneself -- and today foreigners are filling that role. Of course, our Soviet mentality plays a big part in this, but the other thing is the speed of the foreign invasion of Georgia. The suddenness of the appearance of new ideas, products, and so on is helping spread the view that everything that comes from the West is either rubbish or disgusting."

Nor is it just religious minorities that are under fire. Gvakharia says homosexuals and Armenians are also finding themselves being discriminated against.

Ramishvili at the Liberty Institute agrees: "It's absolutely impossible to speak about the rights of homosexuals because it's hidden. It's not reported. Nobody complains about violations, but you can detect this hate on every corner. I think it's hate toward people who are different. When these hate speakers want to stigmatize someone, they are portraying their opponents as homosexual, Armenian, Jehovah's Witnesses, Freemasons."

Georgia is one of the most open societies to have emerged from the rubble of the Soviet Union. It is also one of the few to invite the United Nations to monitor the observance of human rights. But it gives the impression of a society standing on the brink.

When Sandro Bregadze, a member of parliament from the Aghordzineba (Renaissance) Party, says on television that Hitler got it right when he drowned homosexuals, there is little or no protest. When Vakhtang Rcheulishvili, the leader of the Socialist Party, stigmatizes the leader of another party by calling him gay and Armenian, nobody bats an eye.

Little wonder then that Armenians, Azerbaijanis, and other minorities in Georgia are finding it increasingly difficult to identify with the state.