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17 January 2005

GEORGIA: Only "very small percentage" of attacks in trial charges

The trial of Fr Basil Mkalavishvili, who proudly distributed video footage of his and his associates' physical attacks on religious minorities, and six associates is apparently nearing completion in the Georgian capital Tbilisi. But religious minority leaders and local human rights activists have expressed fears to Forum 18 News Service about the small number of attacks being considered. "The trial covers only three of the more than one hundred attacks against our communities alone," Jehovah's Witness lawyer Manuchar Tsimintia told Forum 18, a view echoed by Giorgi Khutsishvili of the International Centre on Conflict and Negotiation. "Of all Georgia's religious violence over this period, this trial covers less than one percent." Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili, who as head of the Georgian Baptist Church testified in court about Mkalavishvili's attacks, expressed concern to Forum 18 that "there are no charges relating to physical injuries suffered by members of religious minorities."

14 January 2005

GEORGIA: Who incites anti-Baptist village mobs?

The governor of Gurjaani district, Akaki Tsikharulidze, has denied to Forum 18 News Service that he was, according to local Baptists, among officials who "agitated" against an independent Baptist congregation, "stirring up hostility" and encouraging a mob of up to 600 villagers to halt the building of a home for Baptist deacon Zurab Khutsishvili in the village of Velitsikhe. Attacks on a Baptist congregation in another part of Georgia have continued, and no religious minority – such as Pentecostals, True Orthodox, Evangelical-Baptists and Catholics – believes that they can openly build places of worship. Pentecostal Pastor Nikolai Kalutsky told Forum 18 that "Until religious minorities gain legal status this will not change." Baptist Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili commented on the prospects for building non-Orthodox places of worship that "without a law on religion, local authorities could easily say no - but by the same token they could also say yes. It depends on local circumstances."

5 November 2004

GEORGIA: Violence against religious minorities continues

Violence and the threat of violence against Baptist, Lutheran, Catholic and Pentecostal religious minorities continues, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. For example, a Baptist deacon, Zurab Khutsishvili, has been banned by police from building a house and threatened with been driven out of his village. Villagers have also beaten-up two fellow-Baptists. Other religious communities face similar opposition. Questioned by Forum 18, local Orthodox bishop Ekvtime declined to say whether the Orthodox Church would allow religious minorities to build places of worship. The deacon's village is close to the village of Akhalsopeli, where a Baptist church affiliated with the separate and larger Baptist Church of Georgia was burnt out by a mob incited by the local Orthodox priest. Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili, head of the Baptist Church, told Forum 18 that "the local priest is stirring up the villagers so we can't start the rebuilding."

9 September 2004


Ahead of the OSCE Conference on Tolerance and the Fight against Racism, Xenophobia and Discrimination on 13-14 September 2004 in Brussels, Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org surveys some of the more serious discriminatory actions against religious believers that persist in some countries of the 55-member OSCE. Despite their binding OSCE commitments to religious freedom, in some OSCE member states believers are still fined, imprisoned for the peaceful exercise of their faith, religious services are broken up, places of worship confiscated and even destroyed, religious literature censored and religious communities denied registration. Forum 18 believes most of the serious problems affecting religious believers in the eastern half of the OSCE region come from government discrimination.

23 August 2004

GEORGIA: Religious freedom survey, August 2004

In its survey analysis of religious freedom in Georgia since President Saakashvili came to power, Forum 18 News Service notes fundamental obstructions to the activity of religious minorities, such as the impossibility of building non-Orthodox places of worship. Intolerance of religious freedom continues in society, examples including President Saakashvili's statement that the state "should protect Georgia from harmful alien influence and extremism", vandalism of Catholic graves, demands to remove non-Patriarchal Orthodox literature from bookshops, and the Orthodox Patriarchate's call for a church to be closed to "cleanse" it, after a visit by Anglicans had "desecrated" the church. Religious minority leaders have identified the need to gain legal status, but government ministers contradict each other about whether or not a draft religion law will be produced, Prime Minister Zurab Jvania stating that the public law code should be amended to allow religious organisations to register.

16 August 2004

GEORGIA: Will violent attackers of religious minorities be punished?

Old Calendarist priest Fr Basil Mkalavishvili, responsible with his followers for many violent attacks on, amongst others, Baptists, Pentecostals, Jehovah's Witnesses, True Orthodox and Catholics, has had an appeal to be released pending his September trial rejected by a Tbilisi court, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. However, other trials concerning violent attacks on religious minorities have not been as firm with the attackers, with many not being prosecuted at all, and other attackers having charges and sentences very significantly reduced. Baptist Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili, along with other religious leaders and human rights activists, expressed pessimism to Forum 18 about whether Mkalavishvili will ever be punished for his many attacks, saying that "it depends on the political will. There is no evidence that the political will is there at the moment." However, along with other religious minority representatives, Bishop Songulashvili noted that, since President Mikheil Saakashvili took over the government, "there have been no serious assaults by extremists."

27 April 2004

ABKHAZIA: JWs still banned and Georgian Orthodox still barred

Politicians in the breakaway unrecognised republic of Abkhazia have told Forum 18 News Service that the Jehovah's Witnesses will continue to be banned. "If they won't defend their families, why should they have the freedom to practice their faith?" asked Valera Zantaria, making it clear that the ban was because of the Jehovah's Witnesses refusal of military service. Also unable to function is the Georgian Orthodox Church, whose members have to travel out of Abkhazia to the Georgian city of Zugdidi for services. Although the Catholic church can function in Abkhazia, access for priests has become difficult because Russian border guards refuse to let them through. Lutherans and unregistered Baptists are also allowed to function, one unregistered Baptist Pastor telling Forum 18 that conditions for their people are better in Abkhazia than in Georgia, with preaching permitted "once the authorities had established they were not Jehovah's Witnesses."

17 March 2004

GEORGIA: Will violent Old Calendarist priest now be punished?

Violent Old Calendarist priest Fr Basil Mkalavishvili could soon be in the dock after he and his key associates were seized when police stormed his church in the capital Tbilisi on 12 March. Mkalavishvili and seven associates are now in three-month pre-trial detention. Baptist Alexei Ordjonikidze, who witnessed Mkalavishvili ordering his supporters to beat his fellow Baptists and burn all the Bible Society literature in their lorry in 2002, told Forum 18 News Service that under the law Mkalavishvili should get at least seven years in prison. Human rights activist Levan Ramishvili believes the end of the reign of terror against religious minorities is one step closer. "When he and his colleagues are convicted by a court, a line will be drawn." He believes Mkalavishvili might do a deal with the court to reduce his sentence by naming those in the old government who might have sponsored his violent campaign. No priests of the Georgian Orthodox Patriarchate alleged by religious minorities to have organised similar attacks have been arrested.

23 January 2004

GEORGIA: Religious minorities' hopes and doubts ahead of presidential inauguration

In the run-up to the inauguration of new president Mikhail Saakashvili on 25 January, religious minority leaders have told Forum 18 News Service they are waiting to see if the new government will bring religious freedom and a decisive end to the violence against religious minorities that has plagued the country since 1999, and change the law to allow non-Orthodox religious communities to gain legal status. Forum 18 has learnt that senior government leaders have declared privately that Old Calendarist priest Basil Mkalavishvili, responsible for much of the violence against Protestants and Jehovah's Witnesses, will not be arrested before the rescheduled parliamentary elections on 28 March, despite an outstanding warrant.

26 November 2003

GEORGIA: Will Shevardnadze's fall bring religious freedom?

President Shevardnadze's resignation will not bring an immediate improvement in the religious freedom situation, Forum 18 News Service has been told. "Although the new leaders are not interested in supporting religious violence, at the same time I don't think fighting it will be a priority - it is not a popular cause, unfortunately", said Dr Gia Nodia, of the Caucasian Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development. Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili, as well as describing the Baptist role in the protests which led to Shevardnadze's fall, told Forum 18 that new elections will allow more democratic politicians to be elected. "In accordance with the results of the falsified elections, more than half the members of parliament would have been hardliners, including Guram Sharadze and others who had been openly supporting religious terrorism," he stated. Dr Nodia also told Forum 18 that the most influential politicians supporting religious violence and restrictions on minority faiths were allied with the former government. Some religious minorities are adopting a wait-and-see attitude, or are sceptical, pointing to opposition leader Mikhail Saakashvili's role as minister of justice when many of the attacks on religious minorities were taking place.

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