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The right to believe, to worship and witness
The right to change one’s belief or religion
The right to join together and express one’s belief

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.

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."

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."

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.

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.

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.

GEORGIA: Orthodox permission needed for religious literature imports

Baptists, Pentecostals, Lutherans, Muslims and Jehovah's Witnesses have told Forum 18 News Service that importing religious literature can be difficult and expensive, or even impossible, due both to obstruction from the Orthodox Patriarchate and also to corruption among officials. There is repeatedly said to be an unpublished instruction to Customs officials from Patriarch Ilya banning the religious literature imports without his permission. Giorgi Andriadze of the Patriarchate told Forum 18 that the Patriarchate only objects to large quantities of non-Orthodox literature being imported. "It's a question of proselytism. If groups bring in millions of books, that means they intend to proselytise. If they bring in enough for their own followers, it's their right." The Armenian Apostolic and Jewish communities have not had any problems with literature importation.

GEORGIA: Can religious minorities publish religious literature?

The Salvation Army, True Orthodox Church, and Pentecostals have told Forum 18 News Service that they cannot print religious literature in Georgia, as publishers refuse to accept it without the blessing of the Orthodox Patriarchate. Giorgi Andriadze, parliamentary secretary of the Orthodox Patriarchate denies that it has any influence over what publishers may produce. "They can publish what they like," he told Forum 18. Tamaz Papuashvili, of the State Chancellery, told Forum 18 that his office has received complaints about the difficulty of printing religious literature, but says Protestants and others should simply ignore the Patriarchate. "They know perfectly well that the Patriarchate is not a state organ." Latin-rite Catholics, Assyrian Chaldean Catholics, Yezidis, and Baptists have not encountered problems in printing publications.

GEORGIA: Religious minorities concerned by "voluntary" 'Religion and Culture' classes

Leaders of the Yezidi, Jehovah's Witness, Pentecostal, True Orthodox, Latin-rite Catholic, and Assyrian Chaldean Catholic communities have all told Forum 18 News Service of their concerns about school "Religion and Culture" classes being compulsory and confessionally Orthodox, not voluntary and informational. Forum 18 found only one school in Tbilisi offering non-Orthodox religion classes, Rabbi Avimelech Rosenblath of the capital's synagogue describing a state school offering Jewish classes, and some Russian-language schools in the city do not have religion classes. Catholic Bishop Pasotto told Forum 18 that some schools in southern Georgia offer Catholic religion classes. Surprisingly, unregistered Baptists have not complained about the Orthodox classes.

GEORGIA: Voluntary 'Religion and Culture' classes compulsory, parents complain

Parents of children in Georgian schools have complained to Forum 18 News Service that voluntary "Religion and Culture" school classes are confessionally Orthodox in nature and are compulsory. However Zurab Tsokhvrebadze, of the Orthodox Patriarchate, denied that religious education is confessional Orthodox. "Schools are state-run and religious education is general Christian education," he told Forum 18. "Teachers have to follow the state syllabus. It is impossible for teachers to propagandise for any one faith, including Orthodoxy." Tamaz Papuashvili, of the State Chancellery, is critical of the system. "It is only compulsory in that teachers give pupils the lowest possible mark if they don't go." and said that pupils are sometimes required to pray. "I haven't visited these classes, but parents tell me this," he told Forum 18. "Some think it's good, others think it's bad. I believe prayer should be in church, not in school."

GEORGIA: "We want legal status!" say minority faiths

Leaders of many religious minorities have told Forum 18 News Service that they want legal status, as without this they cannot own property, maintain bank accounts, or go to law as communal entities. "All confessions were equal until the concordat with the Patriarchate was adopted," Tamaz Papuashvili of the State Chancellery told Forum 18, "then the Patriarchate was given special privileges.". A seemingly disused Soviet-era legal quirk punishes refusal to register congregations and organising religious work with young people. But police recently cited it in a letter to Pentecostal Pastor Nikolai Kalutsky banning him from using his home for religious services without special permission and warning him that if he did this, he would be fined twice the minimum monthly wage. Kalutsky has been prevented from holding services at his home by self-styled Orthodox mobs. Baptist Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili points out that major politicians have not publicly spoken up for religious freedom and believes the political climate has worsened since the election. "We question the genuineness of the pro-Western, democratic political forces – none of them have raised their voice against religious violence, for example," he told Forum 18.

GEORGIA: Why can't minority faiths build places of worship?

Latin-rite Catholics, Assyrian Chaldean Catholics, Pentecostals, Yezidis (a uniquely Kurdish ancient faith), True Orthodox, Lutherans, Old Believers, Muslims and Jehovah's Witnesses have all told Forum 18 News Service that the Georgian Orthodox Patriarchate has either caused them problems in or prevented them from acquiring, building or reclaiming places of worship. A leading Yezidi, Agit Mirzoev, told Forum 18 that he had been told by friends of Patriarch Ilya "that it would be an insult for the patriarch to even discuss the subject". However, the Salvation Army, possibly because of its social projects, has not had problems and nor has either the Armenian Apostolic Church, or the Hare Krishna community. The Georgian Orthodox Patriarchate itself is currently building many new churches.