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3 July 2003

GEORGIA: Baptists deny they burnt down own church

Baptist leader Malkhaz Songulashvili has described as "silly" a suggestion to Forum 18 News Service by district governor Timur Berianidze that Baptists in the village of Akhalsopeli burnt down their own church. Berianidze described as "a lie" the widely-held view that the local Orthodox priest Bessarion Zurabashvili was involved. Songulashvili said Fr Bessarion keeps visiting families and "stirs them up against our people". Villagers have threatened the Baptists that they will never be allowed to rebuild their church and if they do so, they warn that it will be burnt down again. Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams and Pope John Paul II are among those who have condemned ongoing religious violence in Georgia.

23 June 2003

GEORGIA: Police chief bans Pentecostal church

Local police chief Temur Anjaparidze says he will not allow Pentecostal pastor Nikolai Kalutsky to use his home in Tbilisi as a church. "It's not fair on the neighbours," he told Forum 18 News Service on 23 June. "The neighbours won't allow this. What can I do?" His comments came the day after the Pentecostal church was again blockaded by neighbours and self-appointed Orthodox vigilantes, who also made racist remarks to the ethnic Russian pastor. Fr David Isakadze, priest in the nearby village of Dighomi suspected of being behind the repeated mob blockades, denied any involvement. "I have no role in this whatsoever," he told Forum 18, despite appearing to be well-informed about the protests.

16 June 2003

GEORGIA: Did Orthodox arsonists destroy Baptist church?

In the wake of threats by the local Orthodox priest to burn down the Baptist church in Akhalsopeli in eastern Georgia, the building was wrecked by fire in the early hours of 15 June. "The walls survived the fire, but the interior has been reduced to ashes," Emil Adelkhanov of the Centre for Peace, Democracy and Development told Forum 18 News Service. "We're certain our priests were not involved," Metropolitan Daniil Datuashvili of the Orthodox Patriarchate told Forum 18. "Such attacks were always carried out in the past by schismatics who broke away from the Patriarchate." Adelkhanov ridiculed such claims. "There have constantly been incidents of violence when Patriarchate priests were involved."

16 June 2003

GEORGIA: "We'll be back," mob warns Pentecostals

Demonstrators reportedly organised by Orthodox priest Fr David blockaded a Pentecostal church in the capital Tbilisi for seven hours on 15 June, preventing believers from attending a special Pentecost service. "We will do everything to prevent you from meeting. We won't stop till there's blood," Vera Kalutskaya, wife of the pastor, quoted members of the mob as telling the Pentecostals. She told Forum 18 News Service they had threatened to kill her husband, Pastor Nikolai Kalutsky. "You have incorrect information. They were not Orthodox, they were just local residents," local police chief Timur Anjaparidze told Forum 18.

9 June 2003

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."

5 June 2003

GEORGIA: Violent priest to challenge temporary detention order

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

GEORGIA: Jehovah's Witnesses challenge literature seizures

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

GEORGIA: No end to immunity despite presidential pledge

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."

16 April 2003

GEORGIA: Catholic radio broadcasts axed - literally

In the wake of an attack on independent radio station Dzveli Kalaki by axe-wielding men who destroyed the antenna and put it off the air, station director Irakli Machitadze is optimistic the attackers will be brought to justice. "There was wide publicity over the attack and officials promised that the case would be dealt with properly," he told Forum 18 from Kutaisi. He said the station's weekly Catholic programme – which has aroused the anger of the local Orthodox bishop and self-appointed vigilantes – was the most likely reason for the attack. But he vowed the Catholic broadcasts will continue. "It is a question of principle." No-one has been sentenced in Georgia for the series of attacks on religious minorities over the past few years, although the organisers are well known.

7 April 2003

GEORGIA: True Orthodox fear church-destroyers will escape justice

True Orthodox leaders have expressed concern that the apparent closure of the criminal investigation into those guilty of destroying a True Orthodox Church in the village of Shemokmedi in south western Georgia last October will allow them to escape punishment. Deputy procurator Pridon Chanturia ordered the case to be closed on the grounds that "it was impossible to identify the organiser, encourager or perpetrator of the aforementioned criminal act". However, the chief procurator of Ozurgeti district, Yakov Iadolidze, categorically denied to Forum 18 News Service that the investigation has stopped. "The guilty will be prosecuted and there will be a criminal trial." But True Orthodox priest Fr Gela Aroshvili rejected Iadolidze's claim that the case was continuing. "He's lying. If that's so, why did they send us the 18 January decision declaring that the case was being closed?"

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