GEORGIA: Parliamentary Condemnation of Religious Violence 'Ignored'.

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 3 April 2001

Religious minority leaders in Georgia have claimed that the parliamentary resolution condemning religious violence has been all but ignored by the local media. Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili, the head of the Baptist Union, told Keston News Service that the resolution - adopted on 30 March by a vote of 135 to four - was designed primarily for foreign consumption. In the resolution, deputies called on law enforcement personnel to block any manifestations of religious intolerance or violence and to use the harshest measures against those guilty of such extremism. On the same day, parliament adopted a constitutional amendment giving the Orthodox Church a special role in society, which has also aroused concern from other religious groups.

Over the past two years, Pentecostals, Baptists and Jehovah's Witnesses have been subject to often vicious physical attacks by defrocked Orthodox priest Basil Mkalavishvili and his supporters in Tbilisi, as well as by similarly-minded attackers in other towns, which have so far gone unpunished (see KNS 29 March 2001).

Zurab Khovrebadze, deputy head of the Orthodox Patriarchate's press service, denied that the Orthodox Patriarchate had been reluctant to condemn the religious violence. He told Keston from Tbilisi on 3 April that the Patriarchate `categorically condemns' religious violence and religious extremism from whatever source, including, as he put it, extremism on the part of `sectarians'. `We have condemned such extremism more than once,' he explained. He admitted that Mkalavishvili and his supporters were the only group that physically attacked believers of other faiths, though he claimed that Jehovah's Witnesses were `very aggressive' towards the Orthodox Church. He claimed they insulted icons, Christ and the Church and, in one case, had damaged a hill chapel two years ago in the Dusheti district north of Tbilisi.

Khovrebadze had no information about Patriarch Ilya's response to the representations by the Archbishop of Canterbury's representative to the Georgian Orthodox Church, Father Phillip Storr Venter, who visited the patriarchate on 26 March to express the Anglican Church's concern about the violence against religious minorities. Father Storr Venter had spoken to Pentecostal and Baptist victims of the violence in the previous days.

Bishop Songulashvili reported that a number of religious minority and human rights representatives had attended a meeting earlier on 3 April at the office of the ombudsman, Nana Devdariani, to express concern about the continuing violence and the constitutional amendment granting the Orthodox Church special status. He added that in the evening of 4 April, representatives of the `traditional faiths' - including the Orthodox, Muslims, Armenian Church, Jews, Catholics, Baptists and Lutherans - are scheduled to meet at the state chancellery to prepare for a proposed meeting with President Eduard Shevardnadze to discuss the religious situation. The date for the meeting with the president is expected to be set then.

Despite discussing the constitutional amendment on the role of the Orthodox Church in his weekly interview with the journalist Nato Oniani, broadcast live by Georgian radio on 2 April, Shevardnadze made no mention of the religious violence nor of the parliamentary resolution condemning it.

Mkalavishvili was summoned by the prosecutor's office in Tbilisi on 30 March to answer questions on seven criminal cases, but was not arrested. (END)