GEORGIA: Religious Leaders Meet Shevardnadze.

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 11 July 2001

In what one participant described as `a unique meeting', Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze spent two hours yesterday evening (10 July) with religious leaders discussing religious freedom and how to overcome the religious violence that has racked the country for more than a year. `The meeting took place at the president's invitation,' the Baptist Union leader Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili told Keston News Service from Tbilisi on 11 July, `and was the first time the leaders of the country's seven main faiths met together with the president.' Metropolitan Daniel (Datuashvili), who represented the Georgian Orthodox Patriarchate at the meeting, also said it had been positive. `There is a real basis for dialogue between the religions that exist in Georgia,' he told Keston on 11 July.

Attending the meeting were Metropolitan Daniel, Archbishop of Sukhumi and head of the Patriarchate's mission and evangelisation department, Bishop Giuseppe Pasotto of the Roman Catholic Church, Bishop Gert Hummel of the Lutheran Church, Baptist Bishop Songulashvili, Archbishop Kevork Seraydarian of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Muslim leader Ali Ahund and deputy chief rabbi of the Jewish community, Alexander Rosenblat.

The religious leaders presented three petitions to the president. The first, signed by all seven faiths, called for a law on freedom of conscience (Georgia is the only post-Soviet republic without a specific law on religion). `Such a law is badly needed to safeguard the religious rights of citizens,' declared Bishop Songulashvili, who presented the petitions on behalf of the religious leaders. `All seven faiths represented at the meeting will now work together in helping to draw up the text,' Metropolitan Daniel told Keston.

The second - described as a `peace paper' and also signed by all seven faiths - called for religious peace and tolerance both within Georgia and in the Caucasus region.

The third - signed only by the Orthodox, the Catholics, the Lutherans and the Baptists - called on the president to facilitate a law governing procedures for how religious communities, and other non-religious bodies, can engage in humanitarian aid work, as no such law yet exists. `The churches told the president they had the feeling that their humanitarian work was tolerated but not welcome,' Bishop Songulashvili reported. `We asked the president to promote the law-making process to clarify the rights and responsibilities of religious organisations in conducting such humanitarian work.' Metropolitan Daniel believes the meeting will help facilitate church input into the planned legislation. `The wishes of religious groups will now be taken into account in considering the draft of this law.' (The Armenians, the Muslims and the Jews did not sign as they do not engage in humanitarian aid work.)

Shevardnadze indicated that he was aware of international concern over the religious violence in Georgia. `It is not the extremists who will be held responsible for the religious violence,' he told the religious leaders, `but the Georgian nation.' He told them he believes religious believers of different faiths can work harmoniously together for the benefit of the country. `I think common sense will prevail,' he declared. He called on the leaders to participate in the life of the country to help overcome expressions of violence. He argued that the root of the religious violence was people's poverty, allowing them to be easily manipulated by extremists, whether religious or political.

Shevardnadze promised to hold further meetings with the religious leaders. `I know you have far more concerns than those presented here,' he told them, `but I hope in future we will be able to discuss these issues.'

Not invited to the meeting were leaders of the Pentecostal Church or the Jehovah's Witnesses (who claim some 12,000 members in Georgia), or any leaders of the country's less numerous faiths. `I know nothing about the meeting,' Bishop Oleg Khubashvili, the head of the Pentecostal Union, told Keston from Tbilisi on 11 July. `No-one has informed me about it.'

`Only the leaders of religious confessions that have a special influence or played a role in the history of Georgia were invited,' Metropolitan Daniel told Keston. (END)