There were no reports of abuses of religious freedom. The government failed to respond effectively in at least one instance to prevent individuals from disrupting entry into Islamic houses of prayer. Systemic issues remaining largely unchanged included the return and maintenance of disputed church property claimed by minority religious groups and currently held by government entities, the privileged legal and tax status of the GOC, and incomplete enforcement of separation of church and state in public schools.
The 2012 parliamentary election campaign included some statements by candidates that blended religious and ethnic intolerance. According to the National Democratic Institute’s (NDI) June pre-electoral assessment, “Hate speech against religious and ethnic minorities can still be found in Georgian campaign rhetoric.” The PDO reported that “hate speech and manifestations of xenophobia still remain problematic in all types of media.” In a March radio broadcast, Murman Dumbadze, who became deputy parliament speaker in October, stated that Republican Party activist Giorgi Masalkini was not ethnic Georgian and therefore not bothered by the intended reconstruction of the Azizie mosque in Batumi.
In the context of the amended civil code, there were direct talks throughout the year between the GOC and the government on the preservation of the GOC’s “special status,” its rights as outlined in the concordat, the role of a parliamentary commission to monitor property transfers, and other GOC privileges found in the constitution and tax code.
Restitution of property confiscated during the communist regime remained a contentious issue for religious groups other than the GOC. Officials from the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) and the AAC stated that property disputes were not resolved in a transparent legal process, but on a case-by-case basis distinctly favoring GOC claims. According to RCC and AAC officials, the government was often unwilling to resolve such disputes for fear of offending GOC constituents. The joint government-GOC commission monitoring property transfers and determination of cultural monuments of religious significance included no minority religious group representation. There was no official mechanism to mediate property disputes among the GOC, minority religious groups, and the government.
Nongovernmental Organizations (NGOs) and members of minority religious groups expressed concern about the maintenance of church properties under dispute. Many of the properties were falling into disrepair, such as the Surb Nshan church in Tbilisi. On January 10, the dome collapsed after a fire weakened one of the columns, and on May 14, the bell tower collapsed. Claimed by both the GOC and AAC, this disputed property was last used for worship services in the pre-Soviet era.
In addition to five churches in Tbilisi and one in Akhaltsikhe, all jointly claimed by the AAC and GOC, the status of at least 30 other churches claimed by the AAC remained in dispute, as well as five churches claimed by the RCC but given to the GOC after dissolution of the Soviet Union. The Jewish and Muslim communities also disputed a number of mosques and synagogues under government ownership as cultural heritage sites.
Both synagogues in Tbilisi remained state property. One newly renovated synagogue continued to be leased to the Jewish community for the symbolic price of one lari ($0.60) per month. The government had not returned a Catholic church in Rabati in the Akhaltsikhe region to the RCC by year’s end, but leased it to the Catholic community at a nominal price for a term of 100 years.
The RCC reported that the GOC was renovating a historically Catholic church in Ude that was given to the GOC after the Soviet period, removing characteristic Catholic architectural elements and replacing them with Orthodox elements. A 2006 government declaration of the church as a cultural heritage site made the state responsible for preservation of the site’s authenticity. On that basis the government intervened and required the GOC to ensure that renovations respected the building’s original architecture.
During the year, the government granted 24 mosques status as cultural heritage sites, making the state responsible for their maintenance and ensuring no arbitrary architectural changes could be made.
In the Adigeni district, seven inactive mosques built by Meskhetian Muslims deported during the Stalin era were being used to keep cattle. According to the NGO Toleranti, the Muslim community was unsuccessful in efforts to reclaim those mosques, but used other active mosques in the region.
Restoration continued on religious properties previously returned, in part through government subsidies provided on the basis that the buildings were national cultural heritage sites. Several minority religious groups stated that the government did not provide such funding on a neutral and equitable basis. During the year, the Ministry of Culture provided 13 million lari ($7.8 million) for restoration of religious buildings on cultural heritage sites. The ministry reportedly spent 3 percent of the funding, or 409,000 lari ($245,000), to stabilize a central pillar of the Surb Nshan Church, one of the disputed church buildings claimed by the AAC. The Akhaltsikhe municipality funded the restoration of a mosque.
By year’s end, the government had registered 14 minority religious groups as legal entities under public law, including three branches of the Catholic Church, two Muslim groups, Lutherans, Yezidis, two Jewish groups, the AAC, and Evangelical Baptists. Other minority religious groups not registered at the end of the year included the Seventh-day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Religious groups reported no problems obtaining registration.
In October local authorities in Sighnagi issued a construction permit to the Jehovah’s Witnesses after a two-year delay.
In two cases reported by the Jehovah’s Witnesses involving alternative service for compulsory active military duty, the Ministry of Defense denied initial requests for exemptions, but granted the requests in follow-up appeals. Authorities granted the appeal of one Jehovah’s Witness in which the individual was fined for non-fulfillment of military or alternate service, but denied the appeals of three others.
Most prisons had GOC chapels, but no specific nondenominational areas for worship. Representatives from other religious groups complained that prisoners were not given adequate areas within penitentiaries to worship according to their beliefs. Muslim leaders reported Muslim prisoners were kept in their cells with other inmates on the Islamic holy day of Nowruz-Bairam, making worship impossible. Both the PDO and the Ministry of Corrections and Legal Assistance stated they were working to find a solution. Members of the Jewish and Muslim communities also reported prison authorities did not make kosher and halal dietary accommodations. Several religious groups reported that GOC priests actively proselytized in prisons.
The Parliamentary Human Rights Committee, reconstituted after October parliamentary elections, classified eight members of two fundamentalist groups, the Georgian Orthodox Parents Union and the Public Orthodox Christian Movement, as political prisoners and prisoners of conscience because their detention purportedly violated their freedom of expression and freedom of religion. In March 2011, the courts sentenced these eight individuals to four and a half years in prison for breaking into a television station and assaulting participants on a talk show on religious freedom. Two individuals were also charged with assaulting participants at a religious freedom rally and threatening to assault the rector of Ilia State University, which hosted the presentation of a book critical of the GOC. The PDO stated that attacks against minority religious groups decreased after the 2010 detention of these individuals and feared their classification as prisoners of conscience would encourage renewed harassment of minority religious groups.
Ministry of Internal Affairs officials reportedly initiated one criminal investigation for illegal interference with the performance of religious rites and opened five cases for religious persecution.
The PDO reported that members of minority religious groups lodged 11 complaints of governmental and societal violations against their religious rights during the year. Among them was an incident of a woman in the village of Orkhevi who attempted to convince her neighbors to join her in attacking the local Jehovah’s Witnesses Kingdom Hall. Police intercepted her as she made her way through the village and defused the situation before it escalated further.
On May 31, Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that a public school teacher took a student to the local GOC priest for baptism without parental permission, which reportedly took place with the knowledge of the school principal and staff. At year’s end, a police investigation was still underway, and the Ministry of Education reported the teacher was reprimanded.
The PDO noted continuing cases of teachers promoting GOC theology through religion courses, classroom prayer, and the display of icons and other religious symbols in schools.
Members of minority religious groups reported several cases of high school religious history courses being taught as GOC catechism courses. The PDO received several complaints that schools displayed GOC religious objects. Some schools included GOC prayer rooms, and in other cases, Georgian Orthodox churches were located inside schools. Although the Ministry of Education’s General Inspection Department was responsible for dealing with complaints of inappropriate teacher behavior, including violations of the religious freedom of students, leaders of minority religious groups reported families refrained from reporting problems because they felt the department was ineffective and feared their children would suffer backlash in the classroom.
According to reports lodged with the PDO, some public school teachers criticized minority religious groups and students during classroom lessons. Representatives of religious groups other than the GOC and the PDO’s Tolerance Center believed that such problems persisted despite some official complaints.
Seventh-day Adventists reported several cases in which teachers and principals refused to reschedule student exams given on Saturdays. In May a teacher and principal in Kheda reportedly refused to reschedule an exam at the request of one Adventist student, criticized the student’s choice of religion, and gave the student a failing score on the test because she did not take the exam.
Many staff members in public schools tended to assume a student was Orthodox Christian. Some members of minority religious groups reported that parents found the school environment better for their children if they kept the family’s religious affiliation private.
Abkhazia and South Ossetia remained outside the control of the central government, and reliable information from those regions was difficult to obtain. Jehovah’s Witnesses in Abkhazia remained officially banned. Some Jehovah’s Witnesses communities established a working relationship with local authorities, which allowed them to hold some public religious assemblies and conventions. In South Ossetia, Jehovah’s Witnesses were not officially recognized and conducted religious services privately; authorities reportedly harassed them on occasion.
While Baptists, Lutherans, and Roman Catholics reported they were allowed to operate in Abkhazia, the GOC reported that it was not. The GOC and government officials alleged that the de facto Abkhaz authorities carried out restoration work on churches historically claimed by the GOC, including the Likhny Monastery, that eliminated Georgian architectural elements.
In South Ossetia, the de facto authorities did not permit services in GOC churches near the ethnic Georgian villages of Nuli, Eredvi, Monasteri, and Gera. In Akhalgori in South Ossetia, local authorities informed Jehovah’s Witnesses they could no longer conduct religious activities and their literature had been placed on the list of “extremist literature.”
Individuals living outside Abkhazia and South Ossetia faced difficulties crossing the administrative boundaries and encountered difficulties visiting the gravesites of family members inside the territories, especially in South Ossetia. Authorities allowed visits on an inconsistent basis, such as on religious holidays.
In November Beka Mindiashvili, head of the PDO Tolerance Center, highlighted several continuing problems involving religious freedom, including unresolved ownership status of many churches confiscated during the Soviet period, an unequal tax regime favoring the GOC, and continuing challenges to separation of church and state in public schools, including proselytism in schools.
In July the Council of Religions, organized under PDO auspices, made a series of recommendations to government agencies, higher education institutions, and media organizations that included tax code reforms, penitentiary reform to allow space for worship for all inmates, increased cultural sensitivity of teachers and textbooks, a detailed plan to resolve disputed ownership of church properties, increased monitoring of intolerance in the media, and better coverage of religious issues by the public television channel.
High level government recognition of minority religious celebrations continued during the year. On Easter, President Saakashvili recognized the Catholic community for its contributions to the “development of culture, science, and art in our country.” He also recognized the religious contributions of the Armenian community, stating, “The friendship of Georgian and Armenian people has survived centuries and our churches have contributed greatly to the Christian civilization of the world.” In March he recognized Azeri Muslim’s Nowruz Bairam celebration, stating, “I am proud that we are making a unified state, where representatives of all cultures, confessions, and ethnicity feel themselves as equal children of the country.”
On October 5, newly elected Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili joined the Jewish community in celebrating Shabbat and noted the importance of tolerance in the country’s multicultural society, stating, “I am committed to making Georgia a place where all Georgians, regardless of their faith, are treated equally and with respect.” He also joined Tbilisi’s Jewish community for several Hanukkah celebrations.