ON THE FREEDOM OF CONSCIENCE IN GEORGIA
Tamaz Papuashvili, Ph.D. (Philos.), assistant professor, head, Department of religion and national state development, State Chancellery of Georgia (Tbilisi, Georgia)
Today, the Christian Orthodox Church is not the only one in Georgia: there are also the Catholic, Lutheran, Armenian Apostolic churches as well as mosques, synagogues, and yezidi communities. Recently, Baptists, Pentecostals, Adventists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses appeared in the republic. There are followers of all sorts of dissent Christian Orthodox groups: Molokans, Dukhobors and Old Believers. The system of religious control fell apart together with the Soviet Union, giving space to new religious organizations: the Society for Krishna Consciousness, the Bahai, the New Apostolic Church, and the Salvation Army. In the last decade several churches detached themselves from the Christian Orthodox Church of Georgia: the Gldani Orthodox Eparchy, the Christian Orthodox Church in Georgia also known as the Boston Group.
Recently, tension in the religious sphere has been mounting mainly because part of the Christian Orthodox believers is set against the Jehovah’s Witnesses. On 22 February, 2001, after long examination in district and regional courts, the Supreme Court of Georgia finally satisfied the claim of deputy of the Georgian parliament Guram Sharadze by annulling registration of two NGOs set up by the Jehovah’s Witnesses (the Union of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and a representation of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society in Pennsylvania. They were registered in 1998 by the Isan district court of Tbilisi. It should be said that they were registered as NGOs because in the absence of a law on religious organizations this was the only possibility left for them to become a legal person.
Deputy Sharadze is convinced that the religious communities should not be registered as NGOs. The radically-minded Christian Orthodox believers interpreted the court decision as condemnation of the Jehovah’s Witnesses as an anti-state, anti-national and anti-Orthodox organization. This is how the Jehovah’s Witnesses explain why part of the local population started treating them badly. It was before the court session that they gathered 133,375 signatures under a petition to the State Chancellery demanding that it shield them against Bassili Mkalavishvili, an excommunicated priest of the Christian Orthodox Church of Georgia. It was Bassili Mkalavishvili who had set up, in one of the Tbilisi neighborhoods, a religious organization he called Gldani Orthodox Eparchy with the aim of banning all sects and making Christian Orthodoxy a state religion. In recent years the former priest and his followers organized not less than 100 extremist acts in all corners of Georgia against the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
It should be said that he attacks other religious communities as well. One of his attacks that resounded all over the world was aimed at Baptists during which books (including numerous copies of the Gospels) that belonged to the Georgian office of the Bible Society perished in fire. (Malkhaz Songulashvili who is Bishop-President of the Baptists of Georgia also represents the Bible Society in our republic.) The society lost books to the sum of 16,000 lari, or $7,000. One has to bear in mind that many well-known and respected people willingly cooperated with the Georgian office of the Bible Society: Zurab Kiknadze, who is a prominent scholar known for his translations of the Bible, two other well-known academics, Bachana Bregvadze and Zaza Aleksidze, priest Zakaria Dzindzibadze, former minister of justice Tedo Ninidze, and a well-known human rights activist Paata Zakareishvili.
Mkalavishvili attracted attention to himself once more when he staged a fight in the Amirani cinema in Tbilisi that the Charismatic Church (a trend in the Pentecostals) used for a meeting. Bassili Mkalavishvili told the press that this was his method of warning directors of other cinemas and clubs not “to let sects use their premises for preaching against our motherland and Orthodox Christianity.”
In fact, the Christian Orthodox Church of Georgia is very much annoyed with its former priest. Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II blessed a Union of Orthodox Christians designed to protect the religious minorities of which the Jehovah’s Witnesses are one. The union members regard what Mkalavishvili is doing as acts of deliberate spiritual sabotage designed to earn the persecuted a crown of thorns. At a press conference spokesman of the Patriarchate of the Christian Orthodox Church priest David Sharashenidze said that both the former priest and the Jehovah’s Witnesses are out to discredit Christian Orthodoxy. These efforts may escalate violence and tension. As a result Georgia might earn a reputation of a country of religious intolerance. Despite the fact that Mkalavishvili was excommunicated and is a sect member himself, he enjoys support from many Orthodox believers and even certain members of the clergy who look at him as the most active defender of the faith. They tend to forget that at no time force has provided a solution to any serious problem—least of all in the religious sphere. World history has proved many times that faith grows stronger under pressure. There are experts who assert that Christianity became one of the world religions due to, among other things, the four centuries of persecution in the Roman Empire. One can say that Mkalavishvili and his followers are playing into the hands of the religious organizations they persecute.
On 30 March, 2001 the parliament issued Decision No. 827-11, On Manifestations of Religious Extremism, in which it instructed the law enforcement bodies, the ombudsman and the Human Rights Committee of the parliament to take measures to prevent religious violence. Despite this, the situation soon became ridiculous: on 10 March, 2002 some of Mkalavishvili’s followers took several policemen prisoner and herded them into a backyard of a church under construction. Later, the press service of the Gldani Eparchy issued a statement saying that the policemen had been involved in a planned attack on their leader scheduled for the conference “The Situation in the Field of Freedom of Conscience” which had taken place a day earlier in the Mkalavishvili office. Those present at the conference condemned more than 100 violations of the freedom of conscience in Georgia and described the leader of the Gldani Eparchy as the main culprit: together with his comrades-in-arms he had openly provoked hostile actions against all sorts of religious associations and other violations of their legal rights. Some of those present at the conference said in so many words that these actions were fraught with “danger of escalation of religious terrorism.” It was also pointed out that Mkalavishvili had violated Georgian laws.
Guram Galogre, public prosecutor of the Gldani-Nadzaladevskiy District of Tbilisi in which the incident with the policemen had taken place opened criminal proceedings. He demanded three months in custody for Bassili Mkalavishvili as a measure of restraint. The court limited restraint to three months under police surveillance. The journalist community was convinced that mild treatment was caused by an aggressive crowd that gathered at the court and threatened to capture the president’s residence by storm had the leader been detained. The people were obviously unable to carry out the threat, yet mass clashes with police were possible. In his interview to the Resonansi newspaper given on 2 April, 2002 Mkalavishvili said: “Blood will be shed. My spiritual children will never abandon me.” He went even further by saying that he would prefer to be put in prison so that to provoke clashes with the police, which would inevitably produce victims. Under the burden of this, he insisted, the president would have to resign.
This man obviously does not limit himself to religion—he is pursuing clear political aims. In any case, he continued fighting the sects. While he remained under police surveillance, his cronies attacked a meeting of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the village of Ponichala, not far from the capital. In one of his interviews Mkalavishvili declared that the U.S. State Department, which had spoken critically of him in one of its annual human rights reports, was defending the rights of the “criminal sects” and that he would never stop fighting for the state status of Christian Orthodoxy in Georgia and would never abandon his struggle against the sects. His followers were very much inspired by the fact that Mkalavishvili’s defense lawyers managed to lift police surveillance because of a legal error the judge had made when passing the sentence. Mkalavishvili’s followers openly stated that struggle for the triumph of Christian Orthodoxy had reached a new stage.
It should be added that those who identify the faith with ethnic affiliation extend their support to the excommunicated priest. This is quite natural: for many centuries, Christian Orthodoxy has been really playing an important role in the history and cultural development of Georgia. This should not be taken to mean that laws can be violated or that religious extremism disguised as Christian Orthodoxy can be tolerated. Still, Mkalavishvili has numerous supporters. Members of the Dzhvari (The Cross) organization in the city of Rustavi warned that if Mkalavishvili were found guilty they would share criminal responsibility with him. They take an active part in everything that the Gldani Eparchy does, and contributed, among other things, to acts against sects. Zurab Gagnidze, leader of the National Ideology Party, has pointed out that Christian Orthodox leaders in Georgia have been bellicose people at all times. He even suggested that as the defender of the faith Mkalavishvili should be made Patriach. Member of parliament Levan Pirveli, in his turn, demanded that Mkalavishvili be replaced with the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the dock.
According to ombudsman Nana Devdariani, those who support religious radicalism know little about genuine Orthodox faith: they observe the ritual, yet their souls are closed to tolerance and rejection of violence. She has clearly stated that a democratic state cannot live according to religious legislation because it lives according to its constitution. She also said Mkalavishvili’s actions lay within the Criminal Code. This speech that the ombudsman delivered in the parliament invited critical salvoes. Leader of the XXI vek (21st Century) faction Vakhtang Bochorishvili went as far as saying that the ombudsman and deputy secretary for human rights of the Security Council of Georgia Rusudan Beridze “ceased to exist for him.”
On 10 July, 2002 about 15 people burst into the office of an NGO Institut Svobody (Institute of Freedom), broke its furniture and computers. One of its leaders, Levan Ramishvili, was taken to a hospital. The press suggested that the attack had been caused by the human rights activists’ defense of the rights of religious minorities. Guram Sharadze was rumored to have incited the action: in the past he had many times objected to what the Institut Svobody was doing as a protector of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and to its opposition to the idea of Christian Orthodoxy as a state religion. Deputy Sharadze resolutely denied his involvement. He lodged a complaint against the Institut Svobody and even wrote to President Bush to demand that he recall the U.S. Ambassador to Georgia Richard Miles. Sharadze was convinced that the ambassador’s support for the Institut Svobody amounted to his interference in Georgia’s internal affairs.
This situation forced two religious organizations to lodge their complaints in courts. The Jehovah’s Witnesses sent 32 complaints to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg when the registration of its NGOs had been annulled while Mkalavishvili continued his persecutions. The Court united the complaints into one file and treated the case as a priority on the strength of information the Jehovah’s Witnesses were disseminating. The experts recalled the case of Greek citizen Minos Kokkinakis, member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses sect, who was the first to receive a court sentence on the strength of a Greek law that treated proselytism as a crime. The case resounded all over the world when he lodged a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights. The latter ruled in 1993 that the Greek government had violated the freedom of conscience and that Minos Kokkinakis was to be paid $14,400 by way of damages.
Another case was initiated by Savardi, the Union of Catholics of Western Georgia that lodged a complaint against the president of Georgia to the city court of Kutaisi and demanded that he decree to return to them the church built in 1862. Until 1939, when it was closed down, it remained a Catholic temple. In 1989, when Soviet power was nearing its end, the building was transferred to a Christian Orthodox community. There is an opinion shared by many lawyers that in a democratic country property claims should be examined by courts. The president has no right to dispose of property that does not belong to the state.
Numerous violations of human rights in the religious sphere forced leaders of the Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Lutheran, and Baptist communities to send an open letter to the republic’s president on 5 February, 2002 in which they asked him to take urgent measures to stem violence. Members of some of the public and human rights organizations supported this demand.
On 10 July, 2002, on their request President Shevardnadze received leaders of some of the religious organizations: Archbishop of the Christian Orthodox Church of Georgia Daniil (Datuashvili), Archbishop of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Georgia Gevork (Seraidarian), akhund of the Tbilisi mosque Ali Aliev, acting Chief Rabbi of Georgia Avimelekh Rozenblatt, Bishop of the Lutheran Church in Georgia Gert Hummel, apostolic administrator of the Catholic Church in Georgia Bishop Giuseppe Pazotto, and President-Bishop of the Union of Baptists of Georgia Malkhaz Songulashvili. Lela Dzedzhelava, head of a nongovernmental organization Primirenie (Reconciliation) was also present. The participants handed the president their joint statement which said, in particular, that the Transcaucasus had approached a turning point in its history. This created many problems fraught with deliberately fanned hot spots. They also expressed their regret that religion had been exploited to build up tension and stated that their mutual respect remained as firm as ever. The church figures condemned fanaticism, hatred, and violence of all sorts and pledged “to carry out their activities without the slightest trace of proselytism.” They deemed it necessary to emphasize that so far the Transcaucasus had not known religious wars and had always preserved peace and good-neighborly relations among cultures and religions. The religious leaders voiced their conviction that the country needed laws to regulate the relations in the religious sphere and to guarantee freedom of conscience.
They also discussed certain other aspects such as involvement of their communities in all sorts of charity projects, which was especially important for the country living in a socioeconomic crisis, and expressed their conviction that Georgia needed conditions conducive to humanitarian actions.
The world community could not pass over in silence the facts of violation of the freedom of conscience in Georgia: the European Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses for Protection of Religious Freedom, Amnesty International, and the Human Rights Watch voiced their concern. Back in 2001 the embassies of the United States and Great Britain in Georgia issued a joint statement in which they expressed their indignation about the facts of violence. In its annual report on the freedom of conscience in the world the U.S. State Department gave much space to the situation in Georgia. It said that although the Georgian constitution declared the freedom of conscience and separation of the church from the state, in recent years certain policemen in some of the regions interfered with activities of foreign missionaries, the authorities failed to pay adequate attention to the protection of rights of religious minorities, while local administrations sometimes infringe on the rights of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baptists, and Krishnaites. The report pointed out that certain nationalistic-minded politicians were lobbying a law that would ensure priority of the Christian Orthodox Church of Georgia, it mentioned conflicts over buildings that involved the Catholic and Armenian churches (the Armenian Church claims two church buildings in Tbilisi that, according to Georgian historians, had been built by the Christian Orthodox Church). The report also mentioned that in 1999 and 2000 Tbilisi and Batumi received one Catholic church each.
The report gave much space to Abkhazia where Georgian influence was strongly felt and where the rights of the Jehovah’s Witnesses were gravely violated. It should be said here that back in 1995 the government of Vladislav Ardzinba banned the sect.
In view of the fact that in 1998 the United States adopted the International Religious Freedom Act, the problem of human rights in the religious sphere acquired special importance in Georgia. This document allows the U.S. President to apply sanctions to the countries that infringe on freedom of religion. In such cases, the United States will not limit itself to diplomatic measures—it may apply economic sanctions, stop investments and humanitarian aid. Those of the American firms that will continue cooperation with the offenders in violation of the sanctions will be deprived of support from the American government (they may be deprived of state orders and of their export licenses).
On 24 April, 2002 the Congress heard a report by Senator Gordon H. Smith (R-OR) about the religious situation in Georgia. President Bush attended the sitting. The congressman said that the Orthodox Christians were irritated with members of the nontraditional religions and set up a group to attack them. He added that the Jehovah’s Witnesses were the most frequent victims and that the police preferred to keep away from what they did or even encouraged them. The congressman mentioned Mkalavishvili as the man behind the actions against the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pentecostals and Baptists and expressed his apprehension that his supporters might be encouraged by the state’s failure to promptly punish him.
In the wake of the report, in a letter to the president of Georgia 15 representatives expressed a hope that he would act so that to prevent violence and religious persecutions.
Eduard Shevardnadze replied with a letter in which he shared the congressmen’s concern and confirmed his conviction that acts of violence should be punished. He explained that religious intolerance in his country was caused by the fact that for many centuries the Christian Orthodox Church had been doing a lot to preserve the Georgian statehood and the nation itself. He also pointed out that Muslims, followers of the Armenian Church, Catholics and Jews have been living side by side, without serious problems, with Orthodox Christians in Georgia. When new creeds arrived in the country, part of the population was taken unawares and developed negative attitudes to the newcomers. The president agreed that these people were wrong and warned that it would take some time to reverse the trend.
The Sakartvelos respublika newspaper published a letter by the president in which Shevardnadze condemned extremism and religious violence. He said that those who resorted to violence in the interests of Christian Orthodoxy were making a grave mistake because they undermined respect for their own faith. On 17 May, 2002 the president of Georgia issued Decree No. 240, On the Measures to Step Up Protection of Human Rights in Georgia, that pointed out that human rights and their protection were one of the highest priorities. Human rights in Georgia are still not completely guaranteed despite the fact that the country has got a constitution, all necessary laws that meet all international legal standards, and the Constitutional Court which plays a key role in the human rights sphere. Decree No. 240 is related to the human rights issue in general and it also pays special attention to freedom of conscience. The Public Prosecutor’s Office, the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of the Interior were instructed to take measures designed to protect freedom of conscience and confession and to conduct timely investigations of violations of the rights of religious minorities, to send all relevant cases to court, to teach personnel to work “in the sphere of human rights and freedom of conscience.” The decree also instructed the republic’s Council of Justice to pay particular attention to the cases of violence and insults of dignity in the religious sphere that should reach courts without unnecessary delays. Control over the fulfillment of the decree was entrusted to Deputy Secretary for human rights of the Security Council Rusudan Beridze. There was an opinion voiced, among other members of nongovernmental organizations, by Tina Khidasheli, member of the Association of Young Lawyers, that the decree would not be fulfilled as being of no importance. Despite this the decree was widely acclaimed by the public.
When commenting on the letter of 15 American congressmen to the president of Georgia, Mkalavishvili said that its authors were encouraging “criminal activities of criminal sects.” He described the bill on religious organizations prepared by the Ministry of Justice as “an anti-Orthodox and anti-Georgian document because it legalized the sects.” He staged a protest action at the embassy of the United States in Tbilisi and accused the officials of the Ministry of Justice of drafting the law on an order from Washington. He even publicly burned down a copy of the bill. He also said that “Georgia was being transferred from the Russian empire to the American empire.” He was convinced that this explained why the U.S. extended its benevolence and help to Georgia; he insisted that the bill on religious organizations that did not protect Christian Orthodoxy and legalized the sects appeared due to American influence. The former priest announced a series of actions across the country in support of the idea of making Christian Orthodoxy a state religion. He also expressed his firm conviction that it was the religious factor that caused an earthquake in Tbilisi last spring and added that the government responsible for the bill would be held responsible for any earthquake in future.
Georgia wants to join the European structures while the European Union treats religious freedom as an absolute priority. In 2000, the European Parliament passed a resolution that said that the EU members should guide themselves by the recommendations of the Council of Europe (Nos. 1202 and 1396 of 1999) which declared tolerance. In addition, on 25 September, 2001 the Council of Europe passed Resolution No. 1257 that expressed concern over the facts of persecution of the religious minorities in Georgia while the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance radically condemned the situation in Georgia.
On 18-19 March, 2002 the U.N. Committee for Human Rights discussed the problem of human rights in Georgia and observation of freedom of conscience as its part. Its members said that the republican authorities should display tolerance so that to avoid extremism and discrimination for religious reasons.
I would like to say that the Georgian public is doing its best to improve the relations between religious organizations. The Primirenie organization mentioned above is making its own weighty contribution to the process. It is responsible for the agreements between the Christian Orthodox Church of Georgia and the Catholic, Lutheran, Armenian Apostolic and Baptist churches, and the Muslim and Jewish communities. In these documents the sides gave their consent to a constitutional agreement between the Orthodox Church of Georgia and the government. They promised to do their best to prevent violence for religious reasons.
On 18-19 July, 2002 the organization conducted a conference called “Cooperation for the Sake of Peace in the Caucasus” attended by a delegation of the Christian Orthodox Church of Georgia headed by Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II, delegations of the Russian Christian Orthodox Church, Spiritual Administrations of the Muslims of the Caucasus, Turkey, Kuwait, Iran, and other countries. In his opening speech President Shevardnadze spoke about the special role the Orthodox Church had played in Georgia’s history and its great contribution to its statehood and culture. He also pointed out that religious antagonism was alien to Georgia and that the present religious confrontation was one of the manifestations of a complex and contradictory globalization process. The president emphasized that the state would protect the constitutional principles in all cases of their violations by any of the religious organizations.
The conference discussed the situation in the Caucasus and examined the religions’ potential in conflict settlement. It adopted a communiqué and an address to the region’s nations and governments in which it said, in particular, that while belonging to various ethnic groups and following various religions the conference participants agreed about their duty to preserve peace and harmony. They pointed out that the Caucasian nations were exposed to ethnic conflicts, they were victims of separatism and xenophobia, alienation and mutual enmity. The conflicts between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Abkhazia and Georgia, Ossetia and Ingushetia, the conflict in Chechnia and elsewhere, which for many years have been causing sorrow and sufferings of millions, were born by domestic and foreign factors. Today, the conference said, they proved an obstacle to natural processes and progress in the region. The participants were convinced that the road to a happy future of the Caucasus lied through cooperation between nations and religions, good-neighborly relations and territorial integrity. Any other road would plunge the Caucasus into an abyss of bloodshed and a destruction of the sacred gift of life. The conference’s address expressed a conviction that the state leaders would overcome all contradictions that existed between their countries and would work out mutually acceptable solutions. The conference was a signal event in the religious life of Georgia and the Caucasus in general, though it, naturally, could not settle specific problems.
I am convinced that religious tension in Georgia is caused by the social hardships the country encountered in the last decade of the 20th century. Experts believe that the change of faith is a form of spontaneous protest on the part of Orthodox believers. There are others who think that the humanitarian aid extended by all sorts of religious organizations played its role.
The Constitution and the laws of Georgia guarantee freedom of conscience. In actual life this freedom is frequently violated: members of religious organizations are persecuted, threats, moral and physical insults are hurled at them. Regrettably, the law enforcement bodies have not yet learned how to adequately respond to this, which creates an impression among the public that the police connive with Mkalavishvili and his group or even cooperate with him in some latent way. Human rights activists insist that it is the police passivity that encourages Mkalavishvili and his cronies. As a result, many of the religious organizations lay the blame for persecutions on the state rather than the Christian Orthodox Church. This cannot but undermine the republic’s international prestige.
Many of the experts believe that the situation can be remedied through an adequate law (the bill was already drawn). Art 9 of the Constitution formalized the following principle of the state-the Church relationships: “The state is of a secular nature and it supports the principle of the freedom of worship.” At the same time, the Constitution recognizes the special role of Christian Orthodoxy in Georgian history. Later the same article was amended to fit the relations between the state and the Christian Orthodox Church regulated by the constitutional agreement. It has not yet been signed; so far there is no law regulating the rights and duties of religious organizations and the process of their registration. The bill has already split the public.
The bill On the Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations presented by the Ministry of Justice on the whole fits the principles of democracy and the international standards. Still, it drew the fire not only of radically-minded Orthodox believers but also of the NGOs that are actively lobbying democratic principles.
The Orthodox believers are convinced that the bill is of an ecumenical nature and as such it ignores the interests of the Christian Orthodox Church and is anti-Orthodox and anti-state. They think that a similar law should take account of the ecclesiastical law and do not exclude acts of protest if the parliament starts its discussion.
Public and nongovernmental organizations do not regard this law as absolutely indispensable—they point out that the already existing laws and the Civil Code make it possible to address all problems. They even say that the authorities need the new law to control all religious organizations. In fact, it will place the Christian Orthodox Church of Georgia as the most numerous and historically most important organization under closer scrutiny of state structures. This is a debatable thesis because any serious control over religious organizations is possible in a corresponding social and political order. Today, Georgia cannot use the law as an instrument of control.
The NGOs are especially displeased with the article that bans “unscrupulous proselytism” which, they say, limits the freedom of speech and the freedom to disseminate information.
The parliament will discuss the bill in winter or spring 2003—it is too early to predict the deputies’ position. One thing is clear, though: freedom of conscience should be ensured in Georgia and the potential of all religious organizations should be tapped in the interests of entire society.