The ongoing protests
that followed the removal of a mosque's minaret in the village of Chela in Georgia’s southern Samtskhe-Javakheti region on August 26 have served to focus attention on the uneasy coexistence within Georgia of an Orthodox Church dating back to the 4th century and a heterogeneous Muslim community, which over the past two decades has come increasingly under the influence of proselytizing clerics from Turkey and Iran.
At the time of the 2002 census, 433,784 people, or 9.9 percent of the Georgian population, identified themselves as Muslims, according to a monograph
posted on the website kavpolit.com in November 2012.
But the leaders of the Muslim community estimate that the current figure is far larger, up to 800,000 people. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili recently gave the number of Muslims
in Georgia as several hundred thousand, and that of Muslim Georgians in the world as "several million."
The majority of Georgia’s Muslims are not ethnic Georgians, however.
The largest single group are Azerbaijanis, who live compactly in three districts of southwest Georgia bordering on Azerbaijan, and who numbered 284,761 people in 2002. Some of them are Shi'a, while others follow the Hanafi Sunni rite.
There are also much smaller communities of Chechens and Avars in the east and northeast of the country.
Georgian Muslims are divided into two main groups. The first are Islamized residents of the Black Sea republic of Ajara that borders on Turkey, who numbered 115,261 in 2002.
The Muslims in Chela were resettled there from Ajara in the 1980s. Muslims in Ajara bearing placards saying "Hands off Islam" staged a protest
in Batumi on August 28 against the removal of the minaret in Chela.
Earlier that day, the head of the regional government, Archil Khabadze, met with local Muslim clerics. He assured them that Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili sides with the Muslim community of Chela in the dispute with tax police over the imported metal structure of the minaret. Ivanishvili has not yet made any public statement regarding the incident.
The second group, numbering at least 3,000, are the Meskhetians -- the Muslim Georgians deported by then-Soviet leader Josef Stalin in November 1944. Comparatively few of them have managed to resettle
in Georgia despite campaigning for decades for permission to do so.
Both the Ajar Muslims and the Avars and representatives of other Daghestani peoples living in Georgia's eastern region of Kakheti follow the Hanafi Sunni rite.
Organizationally, Georgia's Muslim community is subordinate to the Baku-based Board of Muslims of the Caucasus (UMK) headed by Sheikh-ul-Islam Allakhshukur Pashazade.
The UMK's representative in Tbilisi is Ali Aliyev. There is a separate muftiate for Ajara, which has been headed since 2010 by the region’s chief mufti, Jemal Paksadze.
Two years ago, Paksadze was elected head
of a separate Board of Muslims of Georgia, which the UMK reportedly sees as a bid to drive a wedge
between the Muslim communities of Azerbaijan and Georgia.
There are an estimated 300-390 mosques in Georgia.
Since the collapse of the U.S.S.R. in 1991, both Turkey and Iran have made concerted efforts to proselytize among Georgia's Muslim population.
Iran has opened two Shi'a madrasahs, in Tbilisi and Marneuli, and three cultural centers, including Al al-Beit in Tbilisi, which reportedly "maintains close ties with religious circles in Iran," according to kavpolit.com.
Turkey finances a Sunni madrasah in Meore Kesalo, also in the predominantly Azerbaijani-populated southeast.
There have been sporadic reports in recent years of tensions between Orthodox Christian Georgians and Muslims, especially in rural areas.
For example, in November 2012, non-Muslim residents of the village of Nigvziani in Lanchkhuta Raion protested the transformation of a house
belonging to a resettler from Ajara into a mosque.
Arnold Stepanian, who heads the Multinational Georgia nongovernmental organization, says such tensions are on the rise
in the run-up to the presidential elections scheduled for October, with 40 separate incidents registered in Samtskhe-Javakheti over the past six months.
He explained that "if someone exerts pressure on Muslims, that [political] force will naturally lose votes in Muslim-populated areas, but insofar as the majority [of voters] are Christians, there is an active struggle underway for their votes.”