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20 02 2009 - Georgia: Minority Faiths Face Bureaucratic Hurdles
Caucasus Reporting Service
Religious minorities say they struggle to have their legal rights to free worship recognised.
By Fati Mamiashvili in Tbilisi(CRS No. 481, 20-Feb-09)
Statistics shows violence against religious minorities in Georgia was practically non-existent last year, but believers say bureaucrats are making life hard for everyone but the Orthodox Church.

Most Georgians belong to the Orthodox Church, however in some regions, particularly near the borders with Turkey and Armenia, there are significant numbers of Muslims and Christians from Armenia’s Apostolic Church.

Although they have lived in the region for centuries, members of minority faiths say they struggle to have their legal rights to free worship recognised. While they are free to operate by law, they say they face bureaucratic discrimination.

Tariel Nakaidze, who represents Georgian Muslims in the Council for Religious Tolerance, said the difference in approach is particularly marked in the Samtskhe-Javakheti region, home to many Muslims, as well as Armenians, who make up the majority of its population.

“In the last few years the approach to questions about building mosques has changed, rather than the actual opinion of it. If before there was open aggression against it, now there are these small obstacles that mean we just can’t gain official permission,” he said.

In the Black Sea region of Ajara, which has a large Muslim population, several mosques have been built in recent years, but none of them have been sanctioned by officials.

“Last year, the Georgian Muslims built a mosque in Aspindza, and the head of the local administration asked if we had permission from the patriarchate,” said Nakaidze.

“In 2007 there was a mass attack on a mosque built in 1917 in the Adigeni region. There was a similar incident in December last year in the village of Chela, where more than 100 people scaled the roof of the mosque and started to shout ‘you are not Georgian, this is no place for you’. The incident only did not turn serious because the police and the Muslim Council intervened.”

Legally, the Orthodox patriarchate has no right to interfere in the affairs of Georgia’s Muslims, but the church has such influence in everyday life, that it is inevitable.

“The architectural service and especially the patriarchate do not have the right to block construction of a religious building. This is an artificially-created problem. The influence of the patriarchate is very great in Georgia and therefore state structures try to avoid conflicts with the church. This is why permission is not given for the construction of religious buildings,” said Beka Mindiashvili, head of the state ombudsman’s centre for tolerance.

In the 1990s and the first half of this decade, the situation was very different. Then firebrand Orthodox preachers like Basil Mkalavishvili, who was expelled from the official church in 1995, inspired believers to combat the spread of protestant and other minority groups in Georgia. In 2002-3, the ombudsman received more than 800 complaints about attacks on religious communities.

Since then – and since Mkalavishvili was arrested in 2004 – such attacks have dwindled. Indeed, statistics shows violence against religious minorities in Georgia was practically non-existent last year. But they still do not feel comfortable.

“In Saragejo, a local Orthodox man threw a bottle full of petrol at our hall, which was being built, and a representative of the local administration advised our lawyers not to make a fuss about this, and just to make the criminal write a confession, since he did not consider it to be a major crime,” said Manuchar Tsimintia, a lawyer for the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Georgia.

Multi-national Georgia, a pressure group uniting 56 non-governmental organisation and 18 communities, has campaigned for religious equality since 1998. Agit Mirzoev, its executive director, even raised the question of the pressure being put on religious minorities at a United Nations conference in Geneva in 2007.

“I think that all believers in Georgia should enjoy equal conditions,” Mirzoev said.

Fati Mamiashvili is a correspondent with the Rustavi 2 television company.

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