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GEORGIA: "Orchestrated reaction" against religious minorities' buildings

Georgian politicians and the Georgian Orthodox Church continue to deny the continued impossibility for religious minorities to openly build places of worship, Forum 18 News Service has found. "The difficulties we face are linked not to laws, but to a climate that has been artificially created and which forces us – in order not to stir up aggression – not to undertake construction," Catholic Bishop Giuseppe Pasotto told Forum 18. Amongst religious minorities facing this intolerance are Baptist churches, Pentecostals, the Armenian Apostolic Church, and the True Orthodox Church. Elene Tevdoradze, Chair of the Parliamentary Human Rights and Civic Integration Committee, denied to Forum 18 that problems exist, as did the Deputy Chair of the Committee, Lali Papiashvili. She told Forum 18 "No, no, that's not true. It's obviously not true." Zurab Tskhovrebadze of the Georgian Orthodox Patriarchate also denied that religious minorities face obstruction in building.

GEORGIA: Will mob halt Assyrian Catholic centre?

Assyrian Catholics in Georgia's capital Tbilisi fear more mob attacks, after a religious and cultural centre was attacked by a mob, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. "The Orthodox Church and fundamentalists don't want a Catholic presence," Fr Benny Yadgar told Forum 18. "If we start to use the centre for worship these fanatics could attack our people with knives and wooden posts. Our people have a right to be protected." Fr Yadgar insists that the problems do not come from the authorities, but a current signature campaign could lead to pressure on the authorities. Police have refused to comment to Forum 18 on the attacks. The Georgian Orthodox Church and the Parliamentary Human Rights Committee – unlike human rights activists, religious minorities and the Human Rights Ombudsperson - have refused to defend the Assyrian Catholics. "I called on Patriarch Ilya to defend our church, but he says it is not his business," Fr Yadgar stated.

GEORGIA: Religious minorities still second-class faiths?

Only two in-country non-Orthodox religious communities in Georgia – the Mormons and the Muslims - have received state registration, Forum 18 News Service has found. The Jehovah's Witnesses were only registered as a branch of their US headquarters. Registration – which grants rights to own property communally, run bank accounts, and have a legal personality – is only possible as a non-commercial organisation, not a religious community. In addition to their unhappiness with the exclusive privileges the state has given the Georgian Orthodox Church, some religious communities – among them the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Catholic Church and the Muslims – want registration to be possible as religious communities. Hostility towards any non-Georgian Orthodox Church community is widespread, preventing the building of places of worship and even, according to Ombudsperson Sozar Subari, leading to compulsory baptisms of children without their parents' permission.

GEORGIA: Georgian Orthodox priests incite mobs against religious minorities

Georgia's Constitutional Court today (25 May) ruled that mob attacks violated Pentecostal pastor Nikolai Kalutsky's rights to practice his faith freely, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Sozar Subari, the Human Rights Ombudsperson, is one of many who state that the mobs are instigated by local Georgian Orthodox priest Fr David Isakadze. Subari witnessed an attack by Fr Isakadze and told Forum 18 that "a criminal case should be launched against him. However, it will be difficult to prove that he is responsible as he no longer turns up in person." Fr Isakadze and Archpriest Shio Menabde apparently also led a mob to expel another Orthodox priest, Fr Levan Mekoshvili, from his parish accusing him of being a "liberal". Elsewhere, Baptists and Pentecostals both state that Orthodox priests instigate violence against their congregations. "Until those responsible for the violence – especially Fr David Isakadze – are brought to justice, the constitutional court ruling in Kalutsky's case will make no difference," Baptist Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili told Forum 18. The Georgian Orthodox Patriarchate failed to respond to questions about its responsibility.

GEORGIA: Legal improvements, but little practical improvement

"Definite improvements for religious minorities have taken place in the legal field, but on the ground little real improvement has taken place," Levan Ramishvili, of the Liberty Institute told Forum 18 News Service. He was commenting on changes to laws covering religious communities' legal and tax status, as well as a new law affecting school religious education. These de jure changes have been broadly welcomed by minority religious communities, but some are unhappy at being treated as NGOs or private legal persons. But de facto the changes have yet to make a significant impact. Fr Gabriel Bragantini of the Catholic Church commented on education that "In Tbilisi it may be better, but elsewhere it's still as it was before." Emil Adelkhanov, of the Caucasus Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development, stressed that religious minorities must exercise their rights and noted that religious freedom improvements could be reversed. He called for international pressure to be maintained and cited survey results, which found that nearly 47 per cent would support destroying the literature of religious minorities such as Baptists and Jehovah's Witnesses.

COMMENTARY: No religious freedom without democracy: a lesson from "Orange Ukraine"

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko's surprise announcement last month of the abolition of the State Committee for Religious Affairs is a powerful signal to the rest of the region that governments should end their meddling in religious life, argues former Soviet political prisoner Professor Myroslav Marynovych, who is now vice-rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University http://www.ucu.edu.ua in Lviv, in this personal commentary for Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org. He regards the feeling in Ukraine that the communist model of controlling religion is now dead as the greatest gain of the "Orange Revolution" in the sphere of religion. Yet Professor Marynovych warns that other countries will find it hard to learn from the proclaimed end of Ukrainian government interference in religious matters without wider respect for human rights and accountable government. Without democratic change – which should bring in its wake greater freedom for religious communities from state control and meddling - it is unlikely that religious communities will escape from government efforts to control them.

GEORGIA: Two leaders of religious violence finally sentenced – but what about the others?

Two prominent leaders of large-scale violence against religious minorities, Fr Basil Mkalavishvili and Petre Ivanidze, have been given jail sentences, but Forum 18 News Service has been told that many other attackers remain free and unpunished, as individual attacks and sectarian hostility continue. "Of course I'm pleased by the prison sentences, but I know no-one else will ever face trial for any of these many attacks," Orthodox priest Fr Basil Kobakhidze told Forum 18 gloomily. "Dozens of people if not more – including priests of the Georgian Orthodox Patriarchate – should be on trial, but they never will be." Interior Ministry press secretary Guram Donadze declined any official comment, but stated "as a private individual", that others should be tried for their involvement in religious violence. Mkalavishvili and Ivanidze's lawyers are going to appeal against the sentences. Forum 18 knows of no other trials pending for violent attacks against members of religious minorities.

GEORGIA: How should religious violence legacy be overcome?

Individual attacks on people exercising freedom of religion and belief still continue after five years of unchecked large-scale violent attacks. Religious leaders, human rights defenders and Georgia's Ombudsperson have all told Forum 18 that the instigators of the violence must be uncovered. Baptist Bishop Songulashvili told Forum 18 that "if it is not done now, it will still be festering five years on. How this violence started, how it developed, and who organised it has to be known. This is the only way the situation can be changed and the terrible legacy overcome." Human rights defender Giorgi Khutsishvili told Forum 18 that "reconciliation comes after the most painful moment. Only when all those responsible – including the organisers – are brought to trial and they plead guilty can reconciliation start." Among the ideas put forward is a South African-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But the Georgian Orthodox Church's Patriarchate and a senior government official have both claimed to Forum 18 that it is not necessary to investigate the root causes of the violence.

GEORGIA: Attacks on religious minorities unpunished

Despite their having been hundreds of documented physical attacks on members of religious minorities, including people being hospitalised, and places of worship and religious literature being destroyed, Forum 18 News Service has been unable to discover any prison terms being given to the attackers. In the most recent of the three completed trials for a small minority of the attacks, one attacker was given a two-year suspended sentence. The trial of one of the most notorious ringleaders of some of the violence, Old Calendarist priest Fr Basil Mkalavishvili, who proudly distributed video tapes of his attacks, and six associates is now underway in Tbilisi, but Forum 18 is unaware of any other trials. Hundreds of other participants in mob attacks on religious minorities such as Baptists, Pentecostals, Jehovah's Witnesses, True Orthodox and Catholics have escaped prosecution and many fear they will never be brought to justice.

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."

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."

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."