GEORGIA: 'Sectarians Have To Be Shot Dead'.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 13 February 2002

The deputy head of the Georgian Orthodox Patriarchate's press office has condemned remarks made on television by the second most senior Orthodox bishop that all "sectarians" in Georgia should be "killed". "The Patriarchate does not share at all these views," Zurab Tskhovrebadze told Keston News Service from Tbilisi on 13 February. "We were astonished and didn't expect such remarks from Metropolitan Atanase. I don't know what caused him to say these things." The deputy justice minister, Giorgi Tskrialashvili, told Keston from Tbilisi on 13 February that he was unaware of Metropolitan Atanase's remarks, but stressed that religious intolerance "is not acceptable to the Georgian government".

Metropolitan Atanase Chakhvashvili, who is based in the town of Rustavi south east of the capital Tbilisi, made his remarks in a programme on religious violence broadcast on the programme 60 Minutes on the private national television station Rustavi-2. The programme was aired on the evening of 10 February and was repeated the following morning. In addition to declaring that "sectarians" should be killed -naming the Jehovah's Witnesses, the Baptists, the Anglicans and the Pentecostals as among those who "have to be shot dead". Clergy of his diocese also demanded the "abolition" of all non-Orthodox faiths in Georgia, together with the Liberty Institute, a Tbilisi-based human rights group which has defended religious minorities.

Metropolitan Atanase declared openly his support for Father Basil Mkalavishvili, a priest defrocked by the Georgian Orthodox Patriarchate who is now a priest of the Greek Old Calendarist Church and who has engaged in several years of violent attacks on religious minorities which have so far remained unpunished. Mkalavishvili's trial resumes in the Didube-Chugureti district court in Tbilisi in the afternoon of 14 February (see KNS 7 February 2002). "We do not want to conduct it peacefully," Metropolitan Atanase declared of his campaign against religious minorities. "We have to express it by war. No peaceful methods will help. Mkalavishvili does it in a masculine and heroic way." He stressed that he had not been party to the decision to defrock Mkalavishvili as an Orthodox priest. "We did not kick him out of the church."

Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili, the head of the Baptist Union who also appeared on the programme, condemned Metropolitan Atanase's remarks, describing them as "incredible". "We now expect a further escalation of violence by Mkalavishvili against religious minorities," he told Keston from Tbilisi on 13 February.

Such condemnation was shared by Tamaz Papuashvili, who handles religious affairs in the government chancellery. "I reacted very negatively to what Metropolitan Atanase said," he told Keston from Tbilisi on 13 February. "It was not right." Asked whether he believed a criminal case should now be launched against the bishop for arousing religious hatred and for threatening religious minorities, Papuashvili refused to be drawn. "I'm not a lawyer." However, he pointed to provisions in the constitution declaring that arousing religious hatred was a punishable offence. "However, the bishop is a private citizen. I can't dictate to the Patriarchate what steps it should take."

Tskhovrebadze - who saw the television programme - also declined to be drawn on whether a criminal case would be launched, but added that the church's synod would "definitely" discuss Metropolitan Atanase's remarks "and the question of his responsibility will be raised". "It is not my responsibility to say what will happen to him." However, he tried to downplay the bishop's remarks, saying that he had spoken "rather obscurely" about the fight against religious minorities "using radical measures". He added that the bishop had not been well recently and "maybe he didn't put things the way he intended to". Keston was unable to reach Metropolitan Atanase on 13 February.

Tskrialashvili claimed that the government was taking steps to end the religious violence that has plagued the country for the past few years. "It was discussed extensively at the government session last weekend, and different views were heard," he told Keston. "The government has a fixed position and is very clear that religious intolerance should have no chance to be present in Georgia." He said the government had drafted a resolution setting out the tasks of the various government agencies to put an end to the religious violence, which he believed is likely to be signed by President Eduard Shevardnadze early next week.

While stressing that his Justice Ministry had no authority over the judiciary, Tskrialashvili claimed the trial of Mkalavishvili and Ivanidze would be conducted "in accordance with the law". He said it was the responsibility of the interior ministry to keep order and secure the safety of participants in a trial. "If it fails to guarantee order and there is further trouble, this will be a ground for instituting a further criminal case against those who are guilty". He pledged that Mkalavishvili "will be brought to justice". He dismissed suggestions that the protracted failure to protect religious minorities from violence was a reason to suspend or expel Georgia from the Council of Europe. "There is no ground for even raising this. The government is doing all it can."

Meanwhile, Mkalavishvili and his supporters have continued to make telephone threats against religious minorities. Songulashvili told Keston that Mkalavishvili had telephoned the central Baptist church in Tbilisi in the early afternoon of 8 February. "The call was taken by our deacon, who was on duty then. Mkalavishvili cursed me and kindly advised the deacon and others not to let 'Satan', as he described me, enter the church any more." Songulashvili said the church has a tape recording of the telephone call, which they have shared with Tbilisi-based human rights groups. He said the church had not reported the threats to the police as there had been "no point". He added that the deacon of an independent Baptist church in Tbilisi had also received an increased number of threatening calls on his mobile phone, all of which have been anonymous. (END)