GEORGIA: Protest against "anti-sect" school textbook
Human rights activists and religious minority leaders have complained about a textbook that warns school children about the "dangers" of religious "sects". "Security: Dangerous Situations and Civil Defence", issued with Education Ministry approval last year, is used for children of 15 and 16 in the compulsory subject Security. Emil Adelkhanov of the Tbilisi-based Caucasian Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development told Forum 18 News Service that he regards the book as a further symptom of "religious hysteria" in Georgia. Baptists and Lutherans have also expressed concern. "I think the textbook encourages religious violence," Malkhaz Songulashvili of the Baptist Union told Forum 18. "If the state is serious about religious freedom it has to withdraw the book immediately and apologise for issuing it."
The book, by Otia Mdivnishvili, Otar Tavelishvili, Gela Ramishvili and Dimitri Makharadze and edited by Teimuraz Melkadze, was published by the Meridiani publishing house in Tbilisi. It is prescribed for use in all state-owned Georgian-language schools (some of Georgia's schools teach in Russian, Armenian or Azeri). The five-page chapter "The Dangers from Religious Sects", which comes at the end of the 64-page book, does not mention any specific religious communities by name, but recommends how children can protect themselves from what the authors regard as the dangers from minority religious communities.
"The fact that the textbook does not mention any particular religious group as harmful does not make it less dangerous for our religious minorities," Adelkhanov told Forum 18. He highlighted a number of phrases in the chapter which worried him: "Religious sects ... forbidden in other countries, with their anti-State, antihuman, amoral sermons, are entering the country"; "Many sects brainwash young people and then ask them for money, make them rob their relatives, compel them to sell their houses..."; "The members of some sects have no scruples about using any means (bribing, deceiving, winning over traitors, including officials, etc.) in their business activities."
Adelkhanov pointed out that Georgian newspapers also often write in general terms about "sectarians sapping the Orthodox and national identity and integrity of our nation". "In this context," he warned, "such phrases from the textbook may easily be understood as referring to any non-traditional religious group in this country."
At the end of the chapter pupils were given a task to carry out in their own time: "Collect information about the activities of internationally compromised religious sects (organisations, associations), write an essay to discuss it in your class and discuss their possible danger at school and at home." Adelkhanov was worried by this. "This task invites teenagers to read what our yellow press - the only available source of such kind of information - writes about Satanic devices and the hidden agenda of evil sectarians."
Pastor Gary Azikov, secretary of the Lutheran Church in Georgia, was also concerned about the textbook, although he had not personally seen a copy. "No-one has given it to us but we have heard about it," he told Forum 18 from Tbilisi on 9 June. He believed that school textbooks should not include material on religious issues without broad consultation with religious communities. "There should have been a conference so that all religious communities could know what was in the book," he declared. "There wasn't." He complained that the Education Ministry was the victim of heavy lobbying by the dominant Orthodox Church.
Azikov maintained that there might be "totalitarian sects" which call for the use of weapons or engage in brainwashing, but believed that if so such groups should be identified by name. "Unfortunately there is a tendency to lump together all religious minorities as groups that people should be defended against."
Songulashvili said the textbook would be one item on the agenda in a forthcoming meeting with the security minister. He said there would also be a meeting with the education minister about the book.
Contacted on 9 June, a spokesperson for the Education Ministry in Tbilisi promised to answer Forum 18's question within ten days as to why such a book which appears to denigrate religious minorities has been issued for use in all state-owned Georgian-language schools.
5 June 2003
Violent Old Calendarist priest Basil Mkalavishvili is to challenge a 4 June district court order that he be held in "preventive detention" for three months. His appeal is to be heard on 9 June at Tbilisi city court. The Baptists have been told that the closed preliminary hearing was connected with the case against Mkalavishvili for raiding a Baptist warehouse and burning copies of the Bible in February 2002. "I don't think they're going to arrest him," Malkhaz Songulashvili, head of the Baptist Union, told Forum 18 News Service. Levan Ramishvili of the Liberty Institute was equally sceptical. "If they had wanted to arrest him it would not have been difficult." Mkalavishvili – who has gone into hiding – has expressed defiance in a television interview, cursing his enemies and warning that Georgia will be struck by earthquakes if he is detained.
7 May 2003
First deputy finance minister Lasha Zhvania has pledged that two consignments of Jehovah's Witness literature seized by customs in the Black Sea port of Poti in March and April will be released as soon as customs procedures are complete. He strenuously denied that the shipments had been seized because they had been sent by the Jehovah's Witnesses. "It is certainly not my government's policy to obstruct people receiving religious literature of any kind," Zhvania told Forum 18 News Service. The Jehovah's Witnesses are challenging the seizures in court. "We have already presented all the documentation we need to. They should already have released the books," Jehovah's Witness lawyer Manuchar Tsimintia told Forum 18. The Jehovah's Witnesses claim that the then customs chief sent a letter to all local branches in February telling them not to allow Jehovah's Witness literature into Georgia.
6 May 2003
Nearly two months after President Eduard Shevardnadze made a high-profile pledge that those who attack religious minorities will be punished, attackers continue to enjoy state-backed immunity. On 4 May a mob stopped the Jehovah's Witnesses holding a congress in the village of Ortasheni near Gori, Genadi Gudadze, the Jehovah's Witness leader in Georgia, told Forum 18 News Service. The mayor of Gori and the police chief warned them not to hold the congress. "It is not some bandit taking action against us but the state. So who can we complain to?" Gudadze declared. "Progress since the president made his pledge is not very significant," Levan Ramishvili of the Liberty Institute told Forum 18. "Perhaps the 'mainstream' religious minorities – like the Baptists, the Catholics and the Lutherans – have seen some improvement, but the others – including the non-Patriarchate Orthodox, the Jehovah's Witnesses and Hare Krishna followers – have seen nothing change."