GEORGIA: Religious Minority Leaders Condemn Religious Violence - Again.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 8 July 2002

Religious minority leaders have expressed their concern about the attacks in early July on a Pentecostal church in the capital Tbilisi and on a Catholic pilgrimage in eastern Georgia (see separate KNS article) and other similar recent attacks. "I am concerned that the religious violence is continuing in Georgia, this time by the clergy of the Georgian Orthodox Patriarchate," Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili, head of the Baptist Union, told Keston News Service from Tbilisi on 7 July. In more than 100 incidents in the past few years, Jehovah's Witnesses, Baptists, Pentecostals and Catholics have been subjected to violent physical attacks and arson. None of the perpetrators has been sentenced, although many are well known, despite repeated protests from minority faiths, local human rights groups and international bodies (see KNS 11 January 2002 and 4 February 2002).

Genadi Gudadze, head of the Jehovah's Witnesses in Georgia, who have borne the brunt of the attacks, is frustrated by the continuing failure of law enforcement agencies to prosecute those leading such attacks. "After more than 700 criminal complaints being filed with the police and prosecutor's office, there has never been even one arrest or conviction of criminals who perpetrate this violence against Jehovah's Witnesses and others, although their identities are well known to the police," he told Keston from Tbilisi on 8 July.

In the latest incident affecting their followers, Jehovah's Witnesses complained that police officers of Tbilisi's Gldani-Nadzaladevi district burst into the home of Guram Pachkhatashvili on 1 July. They detained him and his son Gia on "trumped-up charges" of throwing stones at the unfinished church in Gldani being built by Basil Mkalavishvili, who was defrocked by the Orthodox Patriarchate and is now a priest of a Greek Old Calendarist jurisdiction.

"According to eyewitnesses, on the way to the police station the Gldani police led Pachkhatashvili and his son past the church, allowing Mkalavishvili to strike Gia Pachkhatashvili while the mob of his followers verbally abused the two victims," the Jehovah's Witnesses declared in a statement. "At the police station, Mkalavishvili's chief henchman, Petre (Gia) Ivanidze punched Gia Pachkhatashvili in the neck, knocking him to the ground breathless. He then proceeded to assault Guram Pachkhatashvili while the Gldani police looked on." The police tried to pressure the two Jehovah's Witnesses into signing confessions. "While Pachkhatashvili and his son were in police custody and being abused by members of Mkalavishvili mob, other mob members were in an apartment building nearby assaulting and savagely beating Ketevan Giguashvili." Neighbours who tried to protect her were also assaulted by the mob.

"Jehovah's Witness sources also reported that early on 28 June, arsonists attempted to set light to a home in Gori region used for conventions. "The residents of the home were awoken by a friendly neighbour and were able to extinguish it before it caused further serious damage," a Jehovah's Witness statement reported. "The arsonists quickly made off leaving behind canisters and unused Molotov cocktails. The perimeter of the site had been doused with fuel." The Jehovah's Witnesses highlight suspicions that the local authorities might have had some hand in the attack. "It is very disturbing," a local Jehovah's Witness declared. "On 16 June the governor of our region, David Koblianidze, visited the convention site. Threats were made that any convention would be viewed as illegal. Now we have this act of violence."

The Jehovah's Witnesses cite a recent example of the failure to prosecute the perpetrators of such attacks. On 18 June, Justice Nino Jvenitadze of the Supreme Court upheld a trial court's decision not to open a criminal case over a September 2001 attack by a "religious extremist" in the western Georgian town of Kutaisi on two Jehovah's Witnesses, Manuchar Gaprindashvili and Jemal Margvelani. "When they brought their complaint to the nearest police station, Manuchar Gaprindashvili was again verbally and physically assaulted, this time by a policeman, Temur Kvirikashvili. The victims were prepared to prove in court that the religious extremist, however, was congratulated by policemen for his 'manly' behaviour. In spite of eyewitness evidence and medical reports, the prosecutor, the trial court and the Supreme Court all refused to have those responsible for these criminal acts prosecuted and convicted."

President Eduard Shevardnadze issued a decree condemning religious violence on 17 May, instructing officials to prosecute the perpetrators. "I condemn religious extremism and any kind of violence originating from a religious background, which is unacceptable for any civilised society," Shevardnadze declared in a follow-up article published in the local press on 19 May. "Those who think that by fighting against other religions they are safeguarding the 'victory of Orthodoxy' are bitterly mistaken. In fact they are fighting against the dignity of their own country and against the democratic development of their own country and its values, of which our own faith is the most important&ldots;"

In the wake of the presidential decree, the Justice Ministry began preparing a new religion law which the authorities claim will tackle the problem of religious violence (see forthcoming KNS article). Oleg Khubashvili, head of the Pentecostal Union, speculated to Keston on 8 July that the attacks on the Pentecostals and the Catholics may be connected with plans for a new law and may have been organised by those who want to ensure that the law makes life as difficult as possible for non-Orthodox groups. Like many, the Jehovah's Witnesses are sceptical about the effectiveness of any new law in tackling the religious violence. "One thing is clear," Gudadze added. "The problem of violence against religious minorities in Georgia is due not to a lack of laws, but to the failure to apply existing laws." (END)