GEORGIA: Will Action Against Rebel Priest Halt Violence?

by Lorna Howard and Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 23 March 2001

A consolidated criminal case has been launched against Basil Mkalavishvili, the excommunicated Georgian Orthodox priest who has been waging a campaign of terror against religious minorities, Dali Sadatierashvili, head of the general prosecutor’s office information service, told Keston News Service from the Georgian capital Tbilisi by telephone on 23 March. Mkalavishvili and his supporters have attacked religious meetings and property of a range of religious minorities, including Jehovah's Witnesses, Pentecostals and Baptists in recent years, hitherto with impunity. An informed source has stated that without pressure on the Georgian government from the USA and the Council of Europe, the attacks will not be halted.

The new general prosecutor of Georgia, Gia Meparishvili, whose appointment was confirmed by parliament on 13 February, issued an instruction on 16 March for eight criminal cases on charges of violence against Mkalavishvili and his followers to be brought into one and investigated by the Tbilisi city procuracy, Sadatierashvili said. Meparishvili is reportedly more sympathetic to the plight of those who have suffered at Mkalavishvili’s hands than was his predecessor. Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili of the Baptist Church (which was raided by armed intruders on 15 March - see KNS 16 March 2001) told Keston by telephone from Tbilisi on 23 March that Meparishvili told him he would do the utmost to stop the violence. `It is important that crime is dealt with fairly and without partiality,' the prosecutor told the bishop.

Elena Tevdoradze, chair of the parliamentary Human Rights Committee, told Keston from Tbilisi by telephone on 23 March that she was pleased with the news. She had appealed in parliament on 18 March for Mkalavishvili to be brought to justice, she said, and the following day the Tbilisi prosecutor phoned her to say that proceedings had just begun. Asked if there was hope of a result she said her committee would be watching the process carefully.

Asked if it was true that the Minister of Internal Affairs and the Minister of State Security supported Mkalavishvili, Tevdoradze replied: `Such an opinion has built up because neither of those ministries have taken any kind of legal action against him.'

Bishop Songulashvili told Keston that he had had two meetings this week at the Georgian Patriarchate. The Patriarchate is very cautious and does not want to condemn the violence outright. Its official view seems to be reflected in an interview given last year by Patriarch Ilia II and reported in the Azaval Dasavali newspaper on 18 September 2000: `The Jehovah's Witnesses and Baptists should not be allowed into the country because their main goal is to destroy Georgia.' Despite this, the Orthodox Church signed an agreement with the Baptists on 5 February, agreeing to work together in the nation-building process and affirming the possibility of cooperation in `defence of human rights and peace in the region'. The agreement condemns `religious fanaticism, hatred, violence and proselytism' and is signed by Archimandrite Zenoni on behalf of the Orthodox Church and Bishop Songulashvili on behalf of the Baptist Church. Bishop Songulashvili told Keston that the Georgian Patriarchate had faced opposition because of the agreement.

Leaders of minority communities are keeping up the pressure. In an interview due for broadcast on public television tomorrow, 24 March, Pastor Zaal Tkeshelashvili of the Madli (Grace) Pentecostal church in the Tbilisi suburb of Gldani - which has itself suffered at the hands of Mkalavishvili and his supporters - urges the rights of religious minorities to be protected. He told Keston by telephone on 23 March that he mentions in the programme the case of Pentecostal schoolboy Vasil Basishvili, forced out of his school in Gldani in early March by supporters of Mkalavishvili. `He acts as a branch of the police – the police protect him,' Pastor Tkeshelashvili added. `We insist that our rights are equal to the rights of the Orthodox. They have no priority on grounds of religion.'

The Georgian government has been under diplomatic pressure to tackle the growing violence against religious minorities. Diplomatic sources have told Keston that at the beginning of February the European Union issued a demarche to the Georgian Foreign Ministry urging action to halt the violence.

Speaking during a visit to Tbilisi that concluded on 1 March, the OSCE chairman-in-office, Romanian Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana, expressed concern about the attacks on religious minorities, highlighting in particular the Jehovah's Witnesses, and urged greater religious tolerance. He urged the ombudsman to do more to protect the rights of religious minorities.

On 2 May Georgia's record will be considered in Geneva by the United Nations Committee against Torture, which monitors compliance with the Convention against Torture, to which Georgia is a party. The convention includes in its definition of torture `severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental' intentionally inflicted, whether by a public official or `with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity'. Under the terms of the convention, the Georgian government has the duty to prevent the violence against religious minorities, to end the impunity enjoyed by those guilty of these attacks and to institute `prompt and impartial investigation' of all allegations of torture. (END)