GEORGIA: Pentecostals Latest Victims of Violence.

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 28 March 2001

Defrocked Orthodox priest Basil Mkalavishvili and his supporters have directed their attacks at Pentecostal Christians in the latest in a series of attacks against religious minorities and journalists that have so far gone unpunished. A group of eight visiting Pentecostal pastors - seven of them Americans and one South African – were attacked by Mkalavishvili and some 70 of his supporters in the Gldani district of the Georgian capital Tbilisi on 24 March, Pentecostal leaders have told Keston News Service, although Mkalavishvili's threats to return the next day to attack the Pentecostal church's Sunday service failed to materialise. However, Mkalavishvili resolutely denied that he and his supporters beat the visiting pastors, though he told Keston categorically that he has the right to ban `sectarians' from building their `Satanist' churches and he would stop the Pentecostals building on the site where the pastors were attacked.

The eight foreign pastors were visiting Tbilisi for a conference when, on the way back to their hotel, they decided to stop off at the site where the Pentecostals plan to build a Bible college. `They just wanted to take photos and videofilm of the site to show people in the United States,' Pentecostal Bishop Olegi Khubashvili told Keston by telephone from Tbilisi on 27 March, `but they were there only about fifteen minutes before Basil Mkalavishvili and some seventy supporters turned up. They then began to beat them, carrying on for about ten minutes before they disappeared.' He reported that the attackers stole several cameras and videocameras.

After the attack the visiting pastors returned to their hotel where three of them needed medical attention. `The beatings were not too strong, but there were injuries,' Bishop Khubashvili declared. Officers from the Gldani police came the following day to take statements from the victims and the case has now been passed to the Gldani procuracy. `I believe there will be a criminal case,' Bishop Khubashvili added, `though it is difficult to say how it will go.'

Bishop Khubashvili - who was not present when the attack took place - declared categorically that Mkalavishvili was the instigator of the attack. `Of course it was he who led the attack.' He also insists that violence was used.

However, speaking to Keston by telephone from his church office on 28 March, Mkalavishvili denied absolutely that any violence had been used against the pastors or that any cameras had been stolen. `They are lying. Fifteen of us arrived and told them to leave, saying that they had come as foreigners to build a church and that we were not going to let them. But there was no violence. We are simply not allowing them to build.' Mkalavishvili went on to deny that he and his supporters had ever used violence against other Pentecostals, Baptists, Jehovah's Witnesses and journalists, despite witnesses from numerous victims attesting to this violence (see KNS 23 March 2001). On 15 March, however, the Supreme Court of Georgia issued a statement condemning ‘the acts of vandalism of Basil Mkalavishvili and his followers &ldots; and other expressions of religious extremism and intolerance’.

Mkalavishvili did not deny that he was engaged in a campaign to obstruct the activity of non-Orthodox groups. `We won't allow sectarians to build their Satanic churches,' he declared of the Pentecostals, Baptists and Jehovah's Witnesses. `We are a country that has been Orthodox for twenty centuries,' he maintained. `They are against Orthodoxy and insult Jesus Christ. They are selling out Orthodoxy and the Georgian soul.' Asked what gave him the right as a private individual to attack and obstruct the work of religious minorities, he insisted: `It is my business. I am a Georgian citizen. I will not allow them to conduct their work.'

He contrasted what he believed was the lack of difficulty for religious minorities to acquire building plots with the difficulty he said his congregation has experienced trying to acquire a plot to build in the Gldani district. (Mkalavishvili was defrocked by the Georgian Patriarchate in 1995 and is now under the jurisdiction of Greek Old Calendarists.) `The state doesn't allow us to build a church though I have 15,000 spiritual children. We have had to worship on the street for the past six years.' Asked who had specifically banned his church from acquiring a site and building a church he declared: `The city mayor, the parliament.' Asked why the difficulties his congregation has faced in acquiring a site justified attacks on other religious communities he declared: `They [the authorities] won't give us a site but they [the Pentecostals] have been able to buy a site easily.'

The attack on the pastors came the day after Mkalavishvili and four supporters arrived at the Pentecostal conference which was attended by some 300 people. `We decided not to let them in,' Bishop Khubashvili declared, `but they promised to return in larger numbers. However, they did not do so.' He added that at the Pentecostals' Sunday service on 25 March, the local police warned that Mkalavishvili had threatened to come along and break up the service. The police advised them to leave the building. The 600 Pentecostals at the service declined to leave, telling the police that it was their duty to come and defend them against any attack, and the service continued. Bishop Khubashvili reported that the police then sent five cars of officers, who remained outside on the pavement until the end of the service. `There were no incidents,' he declared. `Mkalavishvili did not turn up.' (END)