KESTON NEWS SERVICE: 20.00, 15 March 2001

I. GEORGIA: ATTACK ON CENTRAL BAPTIST CHURCH. Late last
night (14 March) armed men broke into the central Baptist church in the
Georgian capital Tbilisi, tied up the night-watchmen and removed all the
money from the church safe, cutting it open using a blowtorch, Keston News
Service has learned. This is the latest in a series of attacks on minority
religious groups in Georgia. �The fact that no-one has been punished for any
of these attacks encourages extremists,� Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili of
the Georgian Baptist Church told Keston.

II. RUSSIA: ATTEMPT TO TOUGHEN 1997 LAW ON RELIGION. A
draft law proposed by the parliament of Voronezh region would introduce
additional grounds for liquidating religious organisations into Article 14 of
Russia�s 1997 law on religion, Keston News Service has learned. Those
questioned by Keston about the bill were doubtful that it would be adopted,
but the very attempt to amend the law reveals dissatisfaction with it. Some
feel that pressure from the West means the law is not enforced strictly
enough.

I. GEORGIA: ATTACK ON CENTRAL BAPTIST CHURCH

by Lorna Howard, Keston News Service

Late last night (14 March) five men broke into the central Baptist church in
the Georgian capital Tbilisi, tied up the night-watchmen and forced their
way, using a blowtorch, into the room where all the church�s valuables were
kept in a safe, Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili of the Georgian Baptist church
told Keston News Service today (15 March). �They took everything, leaving
the church without a penny�. As well as the usual funds for the needs of the
church, there was money for aid to refugees, and extra donations for
forthcoming Easter celebrations.

Deputy head of the Georgian Bible Society Avtandil Guruli, a member of the
church, told Keston by telephone from Tbilisi on 15 March that he had been
called to the church first thing in the morning by Baptist Union accountant
Esma Mazmishvili, who had arrived at her office at the church to find a
scene of chaos. The two elderly night-watchmen, Anzor Shermadini and an
unnamed colleague, were so shocked by the attack that they had been unable
to leave the building. They told how two men had come to the church at
about 22.30, offering printing services for the church. While they engaged
the night-watchmen in conversation, two armed men arrived, who threatened
the watchmen with pistols and tied them up. A fifth man, wearing a mask,
brought cutting equipment, and they proceeded to break open the lock of the
iron door leading to the accountant�s office, smash the wooden door behind
it and cut into the safe. �They overturned everything,� Guruli said, �There
were documents lying all over the place and it was impossible to tell if any
had been taken.�

Asked whether they notified the police, Guruli said that at that very moment
(while he was speaking to Keston) Mazmishvili was at the local police
station giving her statement. It was little more than a formality, though: �I
have no hope that the culprits will be found,� he said.

It is unclear who the attackers were, but this is the third action in recent
weeks against the Baptist church and organisations � the Bible Society and
an old people�s home under construction - associated with it. (see KNS 14
March and 9 February). The fact that a blow-torch was used gives rise to
speculation, Bishop Songulashvili said, that the men are associated with
defrocked Orthodox priest Basil Mkalavishvili, who took part in an attack in
January on the offices of the Tbilisi newspaper Resonance, which had
published materials about the violence Mkalavishvili and his supporters
employ. They used a blowtorch then to seal the iron of the office door so that
no-one could enter, and spoke publicly about the attack afterwards.

Bishop Songulashvili, on study leave in Great Britain, has requested that the
Archbishop of Canterbury appeal to the Catholicos-Patriarch of the Georgian
Orthodox Church, who so far has not officially condemned the violent
campaign against religious minorities.

Keston contacted the Georgian Embassy in London, but was told that the
only person who could comment on such matters was Mr Gia, who is away
in Georgia until 20 March. They had received no information about the
attack on the Baptist church.

Bishop Songulashvili, who is also the head of the Bible Society, plans to
return to Georgia immediately, despite the fact that Georgian authorities
have not stopped these attacks and there are rumours of threats to his life.
�The fact that no-one has been punished for any of these attacks encourages
extremists,� he told Keston. (END)

II. RUSSIA: ATTEMPT TO TOUGHEN 1997 LAW ON RELIGION

by Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service

A draft law proposed by the parliament of Voronezh region and considered
by the state Duma's Committee on Social and Religious Organisations
(CSRO) in late February would introduce additional grounds for liquidating
religious organisations into Article 14 of the 1997 law on religion.
According to aide to Duma deputy Sergei Kovalyov, Lev Levinson, who
spoke to Keston News Service on 7 March, it would also 'partially legalise
traditional religions in state schools' by introducing into Article 4 a section
of the law's preamble, which currently does not have legal force. Although
those recently questioned by Keston about the bill were doubtful that it
would be adopted, the very attempt to amend the law is, according to
Levinson, 'indicative' - in Voronezh, it transpires, of dissatisfaction with
non-implementation of the existing law.

Among the grounds for liquidating a religious organisation proposed by the
Voronezh bill are: 'the anonymous dissemination of religious doctrines in
any form', 'pestering citizens in public places: on transport, at bus stops,
stations, places of recreation and the penetration of living accommodation
with the aim of propagandising religious doctrines and disseminating
religious literature' and 'charitable activity and care of socially defenceless
sectors of the population with the aim of drawing them into a religious
organisation'.

The bill additionally proposes that recognition of 'the special contribution of
Orthodoxy to the history of Russia, and to the establishment and
development of Russia's spirituality and culture, respecting Christianity,
Islam, Buddhism, Judaism and other religions' be added to the provision in
Article 4 ensuring 'the secular character' of state education.

Lev Levinson was unsure whether the CSRO had rejected the bill outright or
merely suggested that it be formulated differently. Although he was doubtful
that it would get past the committee stage, he said, 'there is always the
chance that it will be changed to a softer version.'

On 13 March CSRO deputy chairman Aleksandr Chuyev maintained that the
CSRO had already rejected the Voronezh bill. 'The committee was opposed
to its being put before parliament, and to any restrictions', he told Keston.
Asked whether the bill might nevertheless be considered in a different form,
Chuyev was equally doubtful, since 'it needed a completely different
conceptual system.'

Why has the Voronezh parliament proposed such amendments? Speaking to
Keston by telephone from Voronezh on 13 March, press secretary of the
region's Committee for the Affairs of Social and Religious Organisations,
Lidiya Kuznetsova, explained that members of the Church of the Last
Testament headed by Vissarion had induced people in Voronezh to leave
their families, renounce their property and move to Krasnoyarsk: 'The bill is
in response to the tears of those families who have suffered.' After receiving
letters from the affected families, she said, the Permanent Commission for
Links with the Public and Regulations ('Reglament') attached to the
Voronezh regional parliament held a round table to discuss the problem,
following which the bill was drafted and approved in a session of the
regional parliament.

Having sent the bill to Moscow, said Kuznetsova, 'we are waiting for the
Duma religion committee to pay attention.' She did not appear to be
particularly confident about the bill's chances, however: 'If it doesn't pass
then it doesn't pass, but we had to do something.'

According to Kuznetsova, the bill is intended 'to create the possibility to stop
or close down or remove registration' from groups such as Vissarion's. On
her own admission, however, the Church of the Last Testament is not
registered in Voronezh. How, asked Keston, would the bill then affect the
situation? 'Who let Vissarion have 200 hectares in Krasnoyarsk? Our aim is
to get Moscow to force the local authorities in Krasnoyarsk to do something.'

Kuznetsova clearly believes the current Russian law on religion to be
ineffectual: 'It is not enough.' Keston then countered that Article 14 already
includes grounds for liquidating religious organisations as broad as 'the
infringement of the person, the rights and freedom of a citizen' and asked
Kuznetsova why she thought these were not being made use of. 'Maybe it is
of benefit to someone,' she suggested. 'The original draft was made much
milder after Clinton rang Yeltsin - we live according to America's
instructions.'

Levinson agrees that the fact that religious organisations deemed destructive
by proponents of the 1997 law - such as the Mormons and Jehovah's
Witnesses - for the most part function legally in Russia today is due to
western pressure: 'Article 14 does contain dangerous formulations but there
needs to be a political will from above for it to be enacted. It is being kept in
check from above - they don't want to upset the West.' Asked why the
existing law was not being used against allegedly dangerous religious
groups, Aleksandr Chuyev made a further suggestion: 'Religious
organisations have money and they know how to work with government
officials. And government officials encourage them.' (END)

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