KESTON NEWS SERVICE: 20.00, 9 February 2001

I. GEORGIA: MOUNTING NUMBERS OF REBEL PRIEST'S VICTIMS.
Defrocked Orthodox priest Father Vasily Mkalavishvili and his supporters
disrupted a press conference on 26 January at the ombudsman's office in the
Georgian capital Tbilisi, where a petition calling for an end to his reign of
terror was being presented, and on the same day launched a series of attacks
on Jehovah's Witnesses in Tbilisi. He has targeted Protestant Christians too,
but several Protestant leaders declined to allow Keston News Service to
report incidents of harassment, fearing possible repercussions.

II. GEORGIA: WHY DOES REBEL PRIEST ENJOY IMPUNITY TO
TERRORISE? Human rights activists, religious minority leaders and
Georgia's ombudsman have condemned what they believe is the impunity
enjoyed by excommunicated Georgian Orthodox priest Vasily Mkalavishvili
and his supporters, who are conducting a terror campaign against Jehovah's
Witnesses, Baptists and Pentecostals involving raids on meetings and the
beating of participants.

I. GEORGIA: MOUNTING NUMBERS OF REBEL PRIEST'S VICTIMS

by Aleksandr Shchipkov and Felix Corley, Keston News Service

On the same day that defrocked Orthodox priest Father Vasily Mkalavishvili
launched a series of attacks on Jehovah's Witnesses in the Georgian capital
Tbilisi, he and his supporters disrupted a press conference at the
ombudsman's office where a petition calling for an end to his reign of terror
was being presented. Although he has targeted Jehovah's Witnesses and
Protestant Christians � including Baptists and Pentecostals - several
Protestant leaders declined to allow Keston News Service to report incidents
of harassment, fearing repercussions given the impunity that Mkalavishvili
enjoys (see separate KNS article).

The Jehovah's Witness petition to President Eduard Shevardnadze, signed by
130,000 Georgians - far more than the country's 15,000 Jehovah's Witnesses
- was presented at the offices of ombudsman Nana Devdariani on 22
January. Badri Kopaliani, the Jehovah's Witness chairman, told Keston on
26 January that Mkalavishvili burst in with ten supporters, announcing:
'From now on I will be the teacher of the Jehovah's Witnesses. I want to
return them to the true faith. If the police and the present government cannot
do this, I and my followers will seize power and expel these apostles of the
antichrist.'

Ramaz Paresashvili, deputy head of the Baptist Union, told Keston that
Mkalavishvili's bodyguards punched and kicked those who tried to stop them
snatching the petition. Kopaliani complained that as usual the police arrived
late, after Mkalavishvili had already seized the petition.

Mkalavishvili is unapologetic. Asked about the beatings and why he seized
the petition, he said no disturbance had taken place. 'I went to the office,
took the papers and delivered them to the procuracy, because the signatures
are not genuine,' he told Keston on 27 January. `The procuracy can decide
whether they are genuine or not. No one resisted: they simply kept saying
"Don't take them".' Mkalavishvili added that there were so many pages of
signatures that they had difficulty getting them all into the boot of his car.

Three hours before the press conference, two female Jehovah's Witnesses
had their handbags stolen by two women who had got out of Mkalavishvili's
car. The women handed over their bags after Mkalavishvili threatened to
kidnap them.

After the press conference, Mkalavishvili and up to 100 supporters tried to
raid a home in Tbilisi's Vake district where Jehovah's Witness meetings are
often held. `They started ringing the doorbell and banging on the door. The
family phoned the police and within a very short time, the police were also
banging on the door, as if they had been there all along. The family saw
through the peephole that Mkalavishvili and his followers were standing
with the police, so they refused to open the door.'

That same evening, the group burst into a home in the Mardjanishvili
district, ignoring requests from Zviad Dzadzamia, who was leading a
meeting of 70 Witnesses, not to frighten the women and children.
`Mkalavishvili began screaming "I'll lead you to my religion",' the Jehovah's
Witnesses told Keston. `Then, in what appears to be a prearranged signal,
Mkalavishvili said, "Don't beat them." At this, all his followers began
beating. All the Witnesses were punched, kicked and beaten with wooden
and even iron crosses.' Mkalavishvili assaulted Aleksandre Barnabishvili,
telling his bodyguard, Petre: `He's the head of this group.'

The police who eventually arrived called them `Satanists' and `traitors to
their ancestors'. The victims filed statements at the police station. The police
promised the procurator would come, but he failed to arrive, though the
police chief and his deputy came. They were more civil and requested that
the victims repeat everything and then issued three of them with documents
enabling them to receive an official medical examination to establish
evidence of assault.

Pastor Zaali Tkeshelashvili of the Madli (Grace) Pentecostal Church told
Keston on 26 January that after Mkalavishvili's supporters broke up a street
evangelism event in May 1999 (see KNS 11 June 1999) his church has rarely
been able to rent premises because Mkalavishvili threatens the managers.
One 15-year-old church member, Vasily Basishvili, is being taunted by
fellow students with the tacit approval of teachers simply for belonging to
the church.

Paresashvili told Keston that Mkalavishvili is trying to halt an old people's
home his Union plans to build in Tbilisi. `I am using the pages of this
newspaper,' Mkalavishvili told Akhali Era (New Era) on 21 January, `to
declare that I and my many followers will spill blood rather than allow a
Baptist church to be built on this site.' Paresashvili stressed that the Baptists
are building an old people's home, not a church. (END)


II. GEORGIA: WHY DOES REBEL PRIEST ENJOY IMPUNITY TO
TERRORISE?

by Aleksandr Shchipkov and Felix Corley, Keston News Service

Human rights activists, religious minority leaders and Georgia's ombudsman
have condemned what they believe is the impunity enjoyed by
excommunicated Georgian Orthodox priest Vasily Mkalavishvili and his
supporters, who are conducting a terror campaign against Jehovah's
Witnesses, Baptists and Pentecostals involving raids on meetings and the
beating of participants (see separate KNS article). The deputy police chief of
the Georgian capital Tbilisi refused to divulge to Keston News Service how
the investigation of the case against Mkalavishvili and his supporters was
proceeding or when a trial could be expected. He pointedly declined to say
whether his force had a duty to protect religious minorities from such attacks
and refused to specify if any concrete steps had been taken to institute such
protection. A deputy city prosecutor pledged that Mkalavishvili will be
brought to trial, telling Keston that `he violated social order in various cases',
but revealed that so far he is only being investigated for hooliganism.

Speaking to Keston on 8 February, the deputy head of Tbilisi police,
Ushangi Geladze, three times refused to say that his force would protect the
Jehovah's Witnesses from further attacks. `We defend all citizens from all
criminal activity,' he repeated, refusing to specify any concrete measures his
force would be taking.

He said a criminal case had been launched `against the group of which
Mkalavishvili is a member' on charges of hooliganism, harm to people and
to property. However, he declined to give details of the investigation.
Geladze added that a criminal case had likewise been launched in 1999
which was investigated by the procuracy and the interior ministry. The case
reached court, he declared, but said that although he knew the result `I am
not able to say what it was'.

Akaki Budarashvili, first deputy city prosecutor, appeared more concerned to
bring Mkalavishvili to justice, vigorously denying suggestions that he is
above the law. `Everyone who breaks the law will be punished,' he told
Keston on 9 February from Tbilisi. He said criminal cases had been opened
against Mkalavishvili and his group on charges of hooliganism over various
incidents. One was launched last year and two this year, one of them after
the Mardjanishvili raid on 22 January (see separate KNS article). Asked why
the charges were on such a minor offence as hooliganism when people had
been beaten he responded: `The investigation is still underway. If it is
established that he caused serious injuries, then there will be further charges.'
He said he had not yet received official reports of the injuries sustained.
Asked how long it will be before Mkalavishvili is brought to trial he
declared: `A trial takes place after an investigation, which lasts for three
months, but we will try to do it quicker.'

Asked why Mkalavishvili was not immediately arrested, given the serious
allegations and his long-standing record of violence, Budarashvili declared:
`We have to collect proof before he can be arrested. He has rights also.
There is a whole group and it is difficult to identify concrete individuals and
to establish guilt for concrete actions.'

In 1995 Mkalavishvili - then a Georgian Orthodox priest in Tbilisi's Gldani
district - harshly criticised his Church for its membership of the World
Council of Churches (it has since withdrawn), accusing Patriarch Ilia II of
the 'heresy of ecumenism' and of 'aiding and abetting sectarians'. He was
excommunicated, but later joined the Greek Old Calendarists under
Metropolitan Kiprian.

Levan Ramishvili, a researcher at the Liberty Institute in Tbilisi, claimed in
an interview with the 'Kavkas' television company on 23 January that 'Vasily
has links with the interior ministry and the security agencies, who are using
him to destabilise the situation to demonstrate to the world that Georgia is
not yet ready for democracy'. Mkalavishvili claimed to Keston on 27 January
that the people support him and that the police are part of the people. 'I have
more followers than the Georgian Orthodox Church.'

At a press conference on 23 January in her office, the ombudsman Nana
Devdariani condemned Mkalavishvili's continuing attacks on the Jehovah's
Witnesses and others, and the disruption of the press conference the previous
day to present a Jehovah's Witness petition against the continued violence
(see separate KNS article). Although the head of the Tbilisi criminal police,
Ushangi Mcheladze, was present, it is unclear whether the law enforcement
agencies will end the reign of terror or bring Mkalavishvili and his
supporters to trial. (END)

Copyright (c) 2001 Keston Institute. All rights reserved.