GEORGIA: Drunken Mob Attacks Bible Society Workers.

by Lorna Howard, Keston News Service, 14 March 2001

A lorry transporting books and blankets to the Georgian Bible Society in the capital Tbilisi was ambushed in the evening of Saturday 10 March in the outskirts of the city by a mob of about 60 people, led by defrocked Orthodox priest Vasily Mkalavishvili, Keston News Service has learned. The driver Tenghiz Zaalishvili and three Bible Society workers, Michael Saralishvili, Aleksander Ordzhonokidze and Lado Godsiridze, who had gone to collect the books from the port of Poti, were beaten up, and many of the books destroyed. Local police from the Mtskheta region eventually stopped the violence and took the lorry away; it remains in their custody.

Ramaz Paresashvili, assistant head of the Georgian Bible Society told Keston by telephone from Tbilisi on 13 March that the books were 1870 copies of a Georgian translation of ‘Opening up the Bible’ by Mary Batchelor. The blankets were a gift from the French Bible Society, intended for distribution to refugees from Abkhazia and Chechnya. The goods had been in Poti for some weeks while all the documents needed to release them from Customs were obtained. Asked how Mkalavishvili knew when the books would be released from Customs, Paresashvili said he thought that the rebel priest must have ‘his own people’ inside Customs.

Paresashvili quoted Mkalavishvili as saying that ‘heretical books must be destroyed &ldots; Enemies such as the United States and Europe want to destroy Georgia by means of heretical books, by attacking the soul of the nation, not with guns, as Russia does.’

Chair of the Human Rights Committee of the Georgian Parliament Elena Tevdorarze, asked by Keston on 14 March for her reaction to the attack, said that her committee and the parliament were ‘outraged’ by the vandalism and the attack on the men. ‘It is comparable to the actions of the Inquisition, or the Ku Klux Klan. The government and the security authorities must take serious measures against the activities of Vasily Mkalavishvili; unfortunately the police are often passive bystanders, and neglect the rights of our citizens.’

Keston has learned from other Georgian sources who do not wish to be named that there are well-founded fears that Mkalavishvili’s actions, if unchecked, may result in death.

Chair of Georgian State Security Rusudan Beridze told Keston by telephone on 14 March that she was fully in touch with the situation, as the Bible Society had informed her of the attack and held a press conference about it on 13 March, information from which had been published in the Georgian media. She had had a meeting with Mkalavishvili and his followers on 13 March to hear their side of the story. Asked what measures could be taken to stop lawbreaking of this kind, she said that there was an article in the Georgian criminal code which outlaws ‘hooliganism’, and a case against Mkalavishvili could be brought to the Procuracy.

This attack is the latest in the campaign of terror waged by Vasily Mkalavishvili and his supporters against religious minorities, including Jehovah's Witnesses, Baptists and Pentecostals (see KNS 9 Feb 2001). Human rights activists, religious minority leaders and Georgia's ombudsman have condemned the impunity he enjoys and have called for urgent action by the authorities. (END)