GEORGIA: Rebel Priest's Victims

by Aleksandr Schipkov and Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 9 February 2001

On the same day that defrocked Orthodox priest Father Vasily Mkalavishvili launched a series of attacks on Jehovah's Witnesses in the Georgian capital Tbilisi, he and his supporters disrupted a press conference at the ombudsman's office where a petition calling for an end to his reign of terror was being presented. Although he has targeted Jehovah's Witnesses and Protestant Christians – including Baptists and Pentecostals - several Protestant leaders declined to allow Keston News Service to report incidents of harassment, fearing repercussions given the impunity that Mkalavishvili enjoys (see separate KNS article).

The Jehovah's Witness petition to President Eduard Shevardnadze, signed by 130,000 Georgians - far more than the country's 15,000 Jehovah's Witnesses - was presented at the offices of ombudsman Nana Devdariani on 22 January. Badri Kopaliani, the Jehovah's Witness chairman, told Keston on 26 January that Mkalavishvili burst in with ten supporters, announcing: 'From now on I will be the teacher of the Jehovah's Witnesses. I want to return them to the true faith. If the police and the present government cannot do this, I and my followers will seize power and expel these apostles of the antichrist.'

Ramaz Paresashvili, deputy head of the Baptist Union, told Keston that Mkalavishvili's bodyguards punched and kicked those who tried to stop them snatching the petition. Kopaliani complained that as usual the police arrived late, after Mkalavishvili had already seized the petition.

Mkalavishvili is unapologetic. Asked about the beatings and why he seized the petition, he said no disturbance had taken place. 'I went to the office, took the papers and delivered them to the procuracy, because the signatures are not genuine,' he told Keston on 27 January. `The procuracy can decide whether they are genuine or not. No one resisted: they simply kept saying "Don't take them".' Mkalavishvili added that there were so many pages of signatures that they had difficulty getting them all into the boot of his car.

Three hours before the press conference, two female Jehovah's Witnesses had their handbags stolen by two women who had got out of Mkalavishvili's car. The women handed over their bags after Mkalavishvili threatened to kidnap them.

After the press conference, Mkalavishvili and up to 100 supporters tried to raid a home in Tbilisi's Vake district where Jehovah's Witness meetings are often held. `They started ringing the doorbell and banging on the door. The family phoned the police and within a very short time, the police were also banging on the door, as if they had been there all along. The family saw through the peephole that Mkalavishvili and his followers were standing with the police, so they refused to open the door.'

That same evening, the group burst into a home in the Mardjanishvili district, ignoring requests from Zviad Dzadzamia, who was leading a meeting of 70 Witnesses, not to frighten the women and children. `Mkalavishvili began screaming "I'll lead you to my religion",' the Jehovah's Witnesses told Keston. `Then, in what appears to be a prearranged signal, Mkalavishvili said, "Don't beat them." At this, all his followers began beating. All the Witnesses were punched, kicked and beaten with wooden and even iron crosses.' Mkalavishvili assaulted Aleksandre Barnabishvili, telling his bodyguard, Petre: `He's the head of this group.'

The police who eventually arrived called them `Satanists' and `traitors to their ancestors'. The victims filed statements at the police station. The police promised the procurator would come, but he failed to arrive, though the police chief and his deputy came. They were more civil and requested that the victims repeat everything and then issued three of them with documents enabling them to receive an official medical examination to establish evidence of assault.

Pastor Zaali Tkeshelashvili of the Madli (Grace) Pentecostal Church told Keston on 26 January that after Mkalavishvili's supporters broke up a street evangelism event in May 1999 (see KNS 11 June 1999) his church has rarely been able to rent premises because Mkalavishvili threatens the managers. One 15-year-old church member, Vasily Basishvili, is being taunted by fellow students with the tacit approval of teachers simply for belonging to the church.

Paresashvili told Keston that Mkalavishvili is trying to halt an old people's home his Union plans to build in Tbilisi. `I am using the pages of this newspaper,' Mkalavishvili told Akhali Era (New Era) on 21 January, `to declare that I and my many followers will spill blood rather than allow a Baptist church to be built on this site.' Paresashvili stressed that the Baptists are building an old people's home, not a church. (END)