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Georgia: Religious Minorities Face Escalating Violence

Religious minorities in Georgia complain about growing discrimination and persecution by Eastern Orthodox hard-liners. RFE/RL correspondent Jean-Christophe Peuch reports from Tbilisi that, ironically, most of the violence directed against non-traditional religious groups has occurred since Georgia joined the Council of Europe in 1999.

Tbilisi, 14 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- When Georgia joined the Council of Europe two years ago, its leaders pledged to improve the country's human rights record. Yet for a significant minority of the country's five-million-strong population, Georgia has apparently failed to meet its commitments.

Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union 10 years ago, Georgia's dominant Orthodox Church has become a key rallying point for patriotic feelings. But at the same time, the so-called "non-traditional" religious denominations have become increasingly popular among the country's impoverished population. Evangelical churches promising eternal salvation have found fertile ground in poor communities.

Georgia's 1995 Constitution recognizes the special role the Orthodox Church played in the country's history, but the Orthodox Patriarchy has lobbied the political leadership for laws that would grant it special status. Like its Russian counterpart, the Georgian Orthodox Church is particularly unhappy about inroads made by other faiths, especially Protestant denominations.

Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili runs Georgia's 18,000-strong Evangelical-Baptist Church. In an interview with RFE/RL, he said relations between the Orthodox Church and other denominations have substantially deteriorated since Georgia gained independence:

"With the rise of [Georgian] nationalism in the early 1990s, the Georgian Orthodox Church has progressively distanced itself from other Christian denominations. It started identifying itself with the nationalist movement and aspiring to a special role. From the mid-1990s on, the Orthodox Church also started asking the government to interfere in the affairs of what it describes as 'sects,' and to harass them."

The Orthodox Church has been careful not to take public stands against minority religious groups. But Songulashvili and other Protestant leaders say the Patriarchy has -- voluntarily or not -- incited religious hard-liners and nationalist leaders against non-traditional faiths.

Among the strongest adversaries of Georgia's religious minorities is Vasili Mkalavishvili, a defrocked Orthodox priest also known as Father Vasili, and Guram Sharadze, a nationalist parliamentarian.

Two years ago, Sharadze initiated a campaign to ban Georgia's two registered Jehovah's Witness communities and launched a court case against the group. Sharadze said the organization posed a threat to the Georgian state and to the Orthodox Church. The move coincided with increasing physical violence against Jehovah's Witnesses.

Since 1999, the organization -- which claims about 15,000 active followers in Georgia -- says it has suffered dozens of violent raids led by Vasili's followers and other Orthodox extremists.

The last recorded incident took place late last month (30 April). A group of some 40 raiders, some masked, broke up a meeting of Jehovah's Witnesses in Tbilisi and beat worshippers. They ransacked the home where the meeting was taking place, destroyed furniture, and broke windows. They also burned a number of religious books in a bonfire outside.

A statement released by the organization quoted a witness as saying that nationalist parliamentarian Jemal Gamakharia was present during the raid and threatened the Jehovah's Witnesses with further attacks.

The day before (29 April), similar raids took place in Rustavi, southeast of Tbilisi, and in another district of the Georgian capital.

The religious minorities say that, in most cases, the police condone the violence against their groups. Sometimes, they say, the police directly participate in the raids.

A member of the Jehovah's Witnesses, who asked not to be identified, told our correspondent that since 1999 the organization has initiated eight court cases against the Interior Ministry and another one against the government's Security Services.

Bishop Oleg Khubashuli is the leader of Georgia's Pentecostal Church. In an interview, he recalled an incident that occurred last year, when a group of religious Orthodox hard-liners raided a gathering of Pentecostal believers in Tbilisi. After the attack, the authorities ordered the meeting room to close down for three months. Khubashuli says:

"The attackers were accompanied by policemen, who remained 'neutral.' But you could feel that the policemen were on their side. Some men dressed in plain clothes beat up believers. They were carrying guns. If they were not policemen, then the police should have taken measures against these armed men. If they were from the police, then everything is clear."

Religious minorities also blame the Georgian authorities for tacitly encouraging the attacks by inaction.

Only once, they say, did President Eduard Shevardnadze publicly condemn religious intolerance. That occurred after a mob of religious extremists led by Father Vasili raided a Jehovah's Witness meeting in the Gldani district of Tbilisi in October 1999. In an unprecedented television appearance the next morning, Shevardnadze ordered a criminal investigation of the attack.

But members of the Jehovah's Witnesses say the Prosecutor-General's Office actually prosecuted two victims of the raid who were sentenced for 'hooliganism.' Of the Orthodox hard-liners who participated in the attack, only two women were charged with burning religious literature. The organization appealed against the court ruling, but the case is still being examined.

Last October, bishops representing the Roman Catholic, Baptist, Lutheran, and Armenian Apostolic churches sent a letter to Shevardnadze, in which they expressed their concerns about the fate of religious minorities in Georgia. But their appeal has remained unanswered.

Harassment of religious minorities also extends to confiscation of their religious literature, denial of legal registration, refusal of entry visas to foreign members of their denominations, and arbitrary detention by law-enforcement agencies.

Religious leaders complain that the Georgian authorities have so far failed to adopt a law on religion that would grant their communities legal rights. Asked about the Pentecostal Church's demands, Khubashuli said:

"[We want] the right to exist legally in order to be able to possess our own buildings, to have property. We don't particularly care about the law that will be adopted, provided it gives us legal status. The constitution says that we have the right to exist. But when it comes to concrete things, when we say that we would like to have something of our own, [the authorities] tell us that there is no law on religion or that we have no juridical rights."

In its latest annual report on rights violations, the New York-based monitoring group Human Rights Watch quoted Georgian non-governmental organizations as saying that increased attacks against non-traditional religious groups may be part of a campaign intended to distract public attention from the failure of the government's social policies.

But leaders of the religious minorities say that the attitude of the Orthodox and secular authorities are more likely inherited from the country's 70-year-long Soviet history. Pentecostal Bishop Khubashuli says:

"Under communism, there was atheist propaganda. And they called us a 'sect.' Today atheism has officially disappeared. People believe in God. Churches have been built and they are attended by a lot of people. But the word 'sect' has remained. It is now being used by Orthodox Christians. I think that the [Orthodox Church] should get rid of this Soviet thought, which is still alive."

Baptist Bishop Songulashvili adds:

"After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was a vacuum and a general impression that the Orthodox Church was in disarray. It no longer got any valuable instructions [from the state]. As in Russia, the main leaders of the Orthodox Church had in all probability collaborated with the regime. After the fall of the Soviet Union, I naively thought that they would openly talk about this, that they would apologize or, as we say in religious language, repent. That would have given them the moral right to continue their activities. But it did not happen."

The Georgian population's attitude towards non-traditional religious groups is divided.

Three months ago, more than 130,000 Georgian citizens, most of them of the Orthodox faith, signed a petition to Shevardnadze protesting against the violence against religious minorities. But the majority of the population is believed to be either indifferent or secretly hostile to non-Orthodox groups. Prejudice and ignorance, Baptist leader Songulashvili says, are chiefly responsible for these attitudes.