GEORGIA: Serious Concerns Over Draft Religion Law.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 9 July 2002

Human rights activists and a number of Georgia's minority faiths have expressed their concerns about provisions of a new law on religion currently being prepared by the Justice Ministry (see separate KNS article). "Even though the new draft is much better than earlier drafts we had seen, it is still discriminatory," Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili, the head of the Baptist Union, told Keston from Tbilisi on 11 June. His concerns were echoed by Father Gela Aroshvili, an Orthodox priest who leads four parishes and a monastery outside the framework of the Georgian Orthodox Patriarchate, who said his attitude to the draft is "very negative". "We believe the state and the justice ministry wrote it together with the Patriarchate," he told Keston from Tbilisi on 5 July. "Both the president at our meeting in July 2001 and the minister of justice in the meeting at the State Ombudsman's office in February 2002 promised us, the religious leaders of the country, that we would be involved in the preparation of this draft," Bishop Songulashvili reported. "But it is clear that the only religion they have consulted was the Georgian Orthodox church."

As evidence of his claim, he cited article 10.4 of the draft: "A religious community which has been active on the territory of Georgia for at least 50 years is allowed to include the word Georgia or Georgian in its name when being registered". "This article is designed to protect the name of the Georgian Orthodox Patriarchate from unwanted rival Orthodox churches, the number of which has been increasing for last 10 years," Songulashvili claimed. "Obviously this article will not hurt our church since we have already been in Georgia for 135 years."

A more serious concern for the Baptist Union is Article 4.7, which reads: "Improper proselytism - which implies the offer of material or social benefits with a view to attracting new members to a religious entity or a confession or psycho-ideological influence on a person with the same end without apparent preliminary consent on the part of the latter - shall be impermissible." Bishop Songulashvili reported that in line with this provision, an amendment is being suggested for Article 155 of the criminal code: "Offering of material or social care in order to attract new members to a religious organisation or confession ... is punished either by a fine or by two years' imprisonment." Bishop Songulashvili believes such a provision could endanger the work of those churches which are actively involved in social and relief ministries, which he identified as the Baptists, the Catholics and the Lutherans. "We have come out of the communist society where the Churches and religion in general were forbidden to participate in the social life of the country. It is only now that we are making some modest steps as churches to meet the incredible needs in our society," Songulashvili told Keston. "This new religious legislation will both limit and discourage churches from taking some social responsibilities. The churches and religions due to their special nature are very close to the people's needs."

These concerns were highlighted in a joint letter to the state chancellery and to the justice minister, signed by Songulashivili on behalf of the Baptist Union, Bishop Giuseppe Pasotto of the Catholic Church, Bishop Gert Hummel of the Evangelical Lutheran Church and Archbishop Kevork Seraidarian of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

As well as highlighting concerns over "illegal proselytism", and the 50-year rule for including the term "Georgian" in a group's name (which they regard as "restrictive and undemocratic"), the four communities also pointed to worries over Article 8 on religious education. "This article should be drafted very carefully in order to avoid the imposition of religion on pupils," they declared. They also wanted a sentence inserted into Article 7 to make clear that the concordat with the Orthodox Church must not conflict with the religion law.

 Father Aroshvili said his "most important" criticism was of Article 13, which makes registration impossible for religious groups whose "objective and activity are in breach of the constitution". He claimed that, given the provision in Article 7 on the state's concordat with the Orthodox Church, the state could use this against those that are unhappy with the concordat. "If we act or preach against the concordat, they could refuse us registration." He particularly highlighted the Patriarchate's monopoly on new church building enshrined in the concordat. He feared another provision of the article, which prevents a group from registering if another group with the same or a similar name is already registered, could be used to prevent his parishes and monastery registering. "They might say the Orthodox Church is only the Patriarchate."

Father Aroshvili also complained of Article 11, which calls for a "religious expert assessment" of groups applying to register. "What sort of assessment will that be?" he asked. "Will it be by the state or the Patriarchate? Whoever draws up the assessment will decide whether someone gets registration or not." He also fears that Article 23 which declares that religious groups are subject to tax could be used against his Church. "The tax code frees the Patriarchate from taxes, but we'll have to pay them. They'll keep building them up until there are no other Churches left. Our publications will be so burdened with tax that we can't function. Our buildings too." He also fears that the requirement in Article 11 that the fifty founding members of a religious community give their full addresses together with other personal details could be "very dangerous". "There is a climate of fear. The police and the secret police could use this information to instigate a reign of terror against the founder members. They could be persecuted." Father Aroshvili rejected any attempts by the government to make registration compulsory under the new law. "Of course it's not right to say registration is compulsory. If I don't want to register, why should I?" He said his Church had sent in its detailed comments on the bill to the state chancellery and the justice ministry at the end of June.

Also critical of some aspects of the new bill is Oleg Khubashvili, head of the Pentecostal Union. He said his union had sent in its comments to the justice ministry at the beginning of July. Human rights groups have joined the criticism of the draft law. "My attitude to the bill is very negative," Tiniko Khidasheli, head of the Tbilisi-based Young Lawyers' Association, told Keston on 5 July. Her views are shared by another Tbilisi-based human rights group, the Liberty Institute. (END)