GEORGIA: Religious Minorities Deplore Attack on Liberty Institute.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 12 July 2002

A wide range of religious minority leaders have deplored the violent attack on 10 July on the offices of the Liberty Institute, a human rights group in the Georgian capital Tbilisi, that left six staff injured, among them the director Levan Ramishvili. "They are people who have always defended freedom of conscience and freedom of speech and have supported religious groups that have suffered. This is a blow to democracy in Georgia," Oleg Khubashvili, head of the Pentecostal Union, told Keston News Service from Tbilisi on 12 July. His views were echoed by Genadi Gudadze, head of the Jehovah's Witnesses in Georgia. "They are one of the organisations who have fought for freedom," he told Keston from Tbilisi on 12 July. "They helped us very much." He expressed alarm that violence against religious minorities (see KNS 8 July 2002) has now spread to human rights groups. "It has become clear that the Georgian authorities cannot defend any organisations from attack."

Lutheran pastor Gary Azikov, deputy to Bishop Gert Hummel, said that although the Liberty Institute had not directly helped their Church, it had done "a lot of work" to try to ensure an equal position for all faiths in Georgia. "They are doing work that is greatly needed," he told Keston from Tbilisi on 12 July. "We condemn violence. One must use a democratic approach, not a physical one."

A 12 July statement from Human Rights Watch reported eyewitnesses as saying that at about 3.00 pm on 10 July, some ten to fifteen men aged 25-30 entered the Liberty Institute office. They seemed to know the layout of the office and immediately set about beating staff and smashing computers and other equipment. The attack lasted only a few minutes, but left Ramishvili hospitalised with multiple contusions, eye injuries and speech problems. One of the five other Liberty Institute members beaten (among them a female secretary) also remains in hospital. Other staff and visitors - including British government official David Gladwell, who was part of a three-man Council of Europe fact-finding delegation - avoided beatings by barricading themselves behind doors.

The attack was condemned "categorically" by Guram Sharadze, leader of the Georgia Above All! Party who has waged a long campaign against what he regards as "sectarian" activity in Georgia. In a recent television debate about religion Ramishvili called Sharadze "a fascist and a chauvinist" and suggested that during the Soviet era he had KGB links. "Such attacks bring no good, either to democracy in Georgia or to its image internationally," Sharadze told Keston from Tbilisi on 12 July. He emphatically denied that he or any of his supporters had anything to do with the attack. "It is a lie that any of my supporters took part." He said he had sympathy for those who were injured. "I will work hard to help discover who was responsible." He also denied that any supporters of Basil Mkalavishvili, a priest defrocked by the Georgian Orthodox Patriarchate who is now a priest of a Greek Old Calendarist jurisdiction, and who has led or organised dozens of violent attacks on minority faiths over the past three years, were involved. He was careful to stress that he did not speak for Mkalavishvili.

Supporters of Sharadze did, however, hold a hostile demonstration outside the Liberty Institute offices on 8 July, throwing eggs and shouting, according to the Tbilisi-based Prime-News agency. Earlier in the day, participants in a rally near the Rustaveli statue in the centre of Tbilisi had demanded "that the Liberty Institute be closed down and the slandering of Sharadze stopped". "They also called for Orthodox Christianity to be declared the state religion and demanded that the nationality of individuals be indicated in Georgian passports."

Khubashvili said he and fellow Protestant pastors from several denominations were meeting to decide what response to take. "The meeting was unanimous in sympathy for the members of the Liberty Institute." But he said many were afraid they could cause the Liberty Institute harm by publicly supporting it, as they said it could add to perceptions among extremists that it was supported by "sectarians". However, Khubashvili said the Protestant churches would hold services "to pray that God will help them".

Khubashvili reported that a Pentecostal church attacked by extremists last weekend (5 to 7 July) in the Nadzaladevi district of Tbilisi (see KNS 8 July 2002) has been "recommended" not to resume meetings. "The police told them it was better not to meet as this might cause a recurrence of trouble," Khubashvili told Keston. "They said if you meet they will come back."

Pastor Viktor Lutsik of the Word of Faith church told Keston that the director of the theatre where he has been renting premises for worship telephoned him on 11 July. "The director said the deputy interior minister had called him to say if you don't want trouble it is better if they don't meet there for a time," Pastor Lutsik told Keston on 12 July. "We doubt it was the deputy interior minister - maybe it was the son of the director as he's very Orthodox." The Word of Faith church - as well as two other Charismatic churches that also meet there - will have to try to find alternative premises for worship.

Pastor Azikov said that so far the Lutherans have not suffered any violence at the hands of extremists, unlike the Pentecostals, Baptists, Catholics and Jehovah's Witnesses. "Thank God we have not been attacked so far," he told Keston. "But it's always possible we might be the next target." (END)