GEORGIA: Will Presidential Meeting End Religious Violence?

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 11 July 2001

Although promoting religious tolerance and ending the religious violence and attacks on minority religious communities were key themes of the 10 July meeting between seven religious leaders and President Eduard Shevardnadze, opinions are divided as to whether the meeting will help end the violence. `It won't end violence in itself,' Baptist Union leader Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili told Keston News Service on 11 July. `But if there is follow-up and the statements from the seven religious leaders are taken seriously it will contribute to an end to the violence. It is not the end of the violence but the beginning of the end of the violence.'

‘The problem of violence won’t be solved by one meeting,’ Constantin Vardzelashvili of the Liberty Institute, a human rights group in Tbilisi which runs a special project to monitor violence against religious minorities, told Keston on 11 July. ‘While there is no sign from the law enforcement agencies of any action being taken, I am rather pessimistic. We’ll have to see what developments there are.’

Metropolitan Daniel (Datuashvili), who represented the Georgian Orthodox Patriarchate at the meeting, believed the proposed new law on religion would end the violence, although he was more equivocal about who was responsible for the violence against religious minorities. He stressed that the violence did not come from the Patriarchate, but complained not only of those who cause `physical harm' but those who cause `moral harm' also. `The reaction of the extremists to these totalitarian religious sects is not justified, but it is in reaction to their very aggressive activities,' he told Keston on 11 July. He believed the meeting will hope to promote stability in the religious field by promoting a `proper legal base' for religious activity that will `stop all violations, from one side or the other'. `The leaders of the different religious groups issued a general declaration committing themselves to fighting together against violence and for peaceful coexistence.'

Most of the victims of violence at the hands of extremists have been Jehovah's Witnesses, although Pentecostals and Baptists have also been targeted.

Among recent incidents was a 17 June attack on a Jehovah's Witness meeting in Tbilisi - the 77th reported attack on Jehovah's Witnesses since October 1999. Some 50 male and female intruders - identified by the Jehovah's Witnesses as followers of the defrocked Orthodox priest Basil Mkalavishvili - broke into the meeting and savagely beat those present and vandalised the home where the meeting was taking place, breaking furniture and windows and setting fire to religious objects before fleeing. Two of the victims were seriously injured in the attack, police said, adding that an investigation had been launched.

The Jehovah's Witness spokesman in Georgia, Christian Presber, asked by Keston on 11 July if he thought the meeting with the president would help end the violence, was not optimistic: 'There have been such condemnations before’, he said, 'but the violence has not stopped. Mkalavishvili and other extremists will only stop when one of the perpetrators of the violence has been prosecuted. Nothing else will stop them.'

Also attacked and broken up by thugs was a 13 June evangelistic meeting, organised by the Pentecostal Word of Life Church in the western city of Zugdidi, which was being addressed by a visiting Swedish pastor.

Pastor Gary Azikov, the Lutheran secretary, told Keston from Tbilisi on 10 July that the situation has recently been `a little quieter', with fewer attacks on religious minorities. However, Bishop Songulashvili characterised the situation as `the quiet before the storm'.

The Council of Europe, which Georgia joined in April 1999, has long been pressuring the Georgian authorities to stamp out such violence and prosecute the perpetrators. The head of the Council of Europe has told the Georgian government the Jehovah's Witnesses must be better protected. `Jehovah's Witnesses deserve the same protection of their personal physical integrity as everyone else in Georgia,' the council's Secretary-General Walter Schwimmer told reporters on 6 July at the end of a two-day visit to the country.

On 29 June, the Jehovah's Witnesses filed a case at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, citing the government's failure to punish the perpetrators of the attacks. The application asks the Court to rule that the government of Georgia must prosecute perpetrators of the 17 October 1999 attack on the Jehovah's Witness congregation in the Tbilisi suburb of Gldani by Mkalavishvili and his followers which started off the series of attacks. (END)