GEORGIA: Draft Religion Law Consultation.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 9 July 2002

In early June the Justice Ministry circulated its draft of a new law on religion, which has already been criticised by human rights activists and a number of Georgia's minority faiths (see separate KNS article). Georgia is the only former Soviet republic that has not so far adopted a law covering religion and there is no system of registering religious communities with the government. Some minority faiths argue that there is no need for a religion law at all, stressing that instead the government should tackle the issue of religious violence which has plagued the country for the past three years (see KNS 8 July 2002).Giorgi Beridze, head of the justice ministry's department for legal issues and relations with parliament, confirmed to Keston from Tbilisi on 9 July that he is the official handling the religion bill within the government and that consultation is continuing on the draft. He added that so far he had not seen any responses to the draft from any religious groups, although copies were given to religious communities on 7 June for their comments.

Although discussion of a possible religion law has been going on for some years, the impetus for the latest text was President Eduard Shevardnadze's 17 May decree calling for a halt to religious violence, which ordered the justice minister, Roland Giligashvili, to prepare a new draft law as soon as possible. Deputy justice minister, Zurab Ezukbaia, reported on the details of the draft law at a justice ministry press conference on 23 May. Ezukbaia told journalists that the draft law stipulates obligatory registration of all religious organisations at the justice ministry and said that activities of those who ignored the demand would be suspended.

One of the first to criticise the draft was the defrocked Orthodox priest Basil Mkalavishvili, who is now under the jurisdiction of the Greek Old Calendarist bishop Metropolitan Cyprian. The law was drafted under pressure from the American authorities, who are "trying to legalise religious sects" in Georgia, he claimed in a 26 May statement. "The draft law drawn up by the Ministry of Justice is anti-Orthodox and anti-Georgian because it legalises sects and permits their registration, the building of temples and the holding of congresses in these temples. But the worst thing is that the draft law calls on the Orthodox population to freely choose their religion," the statement said. As a result of this, "our enemy's wish to have a Georgia without Georgians" will come true, Mkalavishvili said. On 10 June Mkalavishvili attacked the justice ministry and publicly burnt a copy of the draft law.

Some believe there are many in Georgia who do not want a balanced law to be adopted, among them Mkalavishvili. "He is unhappy with the draft not because it does not give churches the right to serve society but because it does not forbid activity of non-Orthodox churches ("sects" as he calls us)," Songulashvili noted. "The government-owned mass media is happily promoting the cause of the priest." Oleg Khubashvili, head of the Pentecostal Union, was also worried about those wishing to restrict the rights of minority faiths. "There are forces who don't want a good new law to be adopted," he warned. "They want only the Orthodox Church to exist and for all other religious groups to be prevented from operating." (END)