The removal of a minaret from a mosque in southern Georgia has sparked intercommunity tensions between local Muslims and Orthodox Christians.
Local authorities forcibly removed the 24-meter-high minaret in the village of Chela in the province of Samtskhe-Javakheti on August 26, prompting angry protests from the country's Muslims.
The move was initiated by the revenue service of the Georgian Finance Ministry. Officials said they wanted to verify if the materials used to build the minaret – the distinctive spire used for the daily calls to prayer -- were properly declared in customs when they were imported from Turkey in July.
A protest by a group of Muslims who tried to block the removal of the minaret was broken up by police, who arrested some 20 people. A number of protesters were also injured.
Human rights defenders and the head of the Board of Muslims of Georgia, Mufti Jemal Paksadze, called the operation a violation of citizens' rights.
Muslim protesters also gathered in the Black Sea port of Batumi, the capital of the neighboring Ajara region.
"We demand that justice be restored, we demand that the minaret gets put back," said one protester. "And we demand an apology to the Muslim community from everyone who is responsible for this act of vandalism."
Three days later, the minaret was returned to a site near Chela following inspections in Tbilisi.
But that move sparked controversy as well, with a group of Orthodox Christians blocking a road in an attempt to prevent the minaret's return.
The Orthodox activists, who gathered in the regional capital of Akhaltsikhe, also called for a national referendum on whether there should be minarets in the country at all.
The minaret at the Chela mosque, before its removal
The minaret is now in storage in a warehouse near Chela and will not be reassembled, under an agreement announced late last week by senior Orthodox and Muslim clerics.
The dispute, however, continues to rumble on.
Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, in his first public comment on the issue, said September 2 that the minaret had been put up illegally. He added, however, that the government needed to tread particularly carefully in cases where religious feelings were involved.
Ivanishvili's rival, outgoing President Mikheil Saakashvili, earlier said the minaret's removal was an "illegality committed against the Georgian Muslims."
The Georgian Orthodox Church meanwhile, appealed for calm, warning against attempts to incite "religious strife."
"What's happening now is that someone is trying to create a religious conflict similar to what they tried to do in [the villages of] Nigvziani, Tsintskaro, and Samtatskaro," said David Sharashenidze, a spokesman for the Georgian Patriarchate. "The aim of these attempts is to pit the Christian and Muslim populations against each other, and in so doing, to discredit the Church and the state."
Sharashenidze was referring to incidents that have occurred since November 2012 in three villages with mixed Muslim and Christian populations -- Nigvziani in the western region of Guria, Tsintskaro in Kvemo Kartli region, and Samtatskaro in the Kakheti region.
In each instance, the local Christian communities there confronted Muslims and barred them from performing prayers in houses converted into mosques.
The population of Chela and other nearby villages in Adigeni municipality includes Muslims who resettled in the area in recent decades after leaving Ajara.