KESTON NEWS SERVICE
Issue 7, Article 4, 7 July 2000

Immediate reporting on violations of religious liberty and on religion in
communist and post-communist lands.
______________________________________

Friday 7 July 2000
GEORGIA'S JEHOVAH'S WITNESSES TO CHALLENGE COURT
DECISION ON REVOKED REGISTRATION

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service

Georgia's Jehovah's Witnesses are to file an appeal at the Supreme Court within
the next few weeks against a ruling by a court in the capital Tbilisi that the
registration of two of the group's entities should be revoked. The Tbilisi district
court upheld the appeal brought by the nationalist politician GURAM
SHARADZE against a ruling last February that went in favour of the Jehovah's
Witnesses. Sharadze insisted to Keston News Service that Georgian law does
not allow any religious group to gain registration as the country has no law on
religion. However, a leading official, RUSUDAN BERIDZE, who is
responsible for human rights on the National Security Council, told Keston that
it is her personal belief that the district court has taken a `wrong decision'. The
Jehovah's Witness lawyer MAMUKA CHABASHVILI stressed that the
revocation of their registration will not come into force unless the Supreme
Court rejects the group's appeal, which it must file by 26 July.

In the absence of a law on religion in Georgia, most religious groups have no
status as juridical persons. Orthodox, Jewish and Lutheran representatives have
confirmed to Keston that they have not registered as legal entities. However, in
1998 the Jehovah's Witnesses registered two organisations at the Isani-Samgori
District Court on the basis of Article 31 of the Georgian civil code. The `Union
of Jehovah's Witnesses', a union of local residents with purely religious goals,
was registered on 17 April 1998, while the `Representation of the Watch Tower
Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, USA, in Georgia' was registered on
the same basis on 11 June 1998, but as a branch of the American organisation
with broader cultural and educational goals
including charitable activity.

Sharadze, the leader of the Georgia Above All party and a parliamentary
deputy, has long battled against the Jehovah's Witnesses. On 26 June a three-
judge panel of the appeals chamber of the Tbilisi district court upheld
Sharadze's appeal against the 29 February decision of the Isani-Samgori court
in Tbilisi. That court found no grounds for Sharadze's allegations that the
Witnesses' literature was anti-state and anti-Orthodox and that their registration
was illegal.

Although at the June hearing the court did not fully endorse Sharadze's
position, it did rule in favour of his appeal. `The reasons for the decision were
not clear from the hurried reading which was made at the end of the trial,'
declared Chabashvili, the lawyer for the Jehovah's Witnesses, in the wake of
the hearing. The court handed down the written explanation of its decision on 4
July.

The Jehovah's Witnesses complain that Sharadze's supporters packed the
entrance to the courthouse and used physical force to try to bar entrance to
anyone who refused to kiss a hand-held wooden cross. Religious icons and
wooden crosses were held aloft during the proceedings and votive candles were
burned in the courtroom during the recess. The group alleges that many of
those present in the courtroom were participants in the mob attack on a
Jehovah's Witness meeting on 17 October 1999 in the Gldani district of Tbilisi
which resulted in the partial loss of sight by one of the women attacked (see
KNS 20 October 1999).

Witness spokesperson GURAM KVARATSKHELIA, expressed concern that
the district court decision not be misinterpreted. `The appeal court's decision
does not alter the current legal standing of Jehovah's Witnesses in Georgia.
There is however, a very real danger that some of Mr Sharadze's followers
conclude that they now have licence to increase their acts of violence against
Jehovah's Witnesses.'

Sharadze told Keston in a telephone interview from Tbilisi on 29 June that he
had brought the case because he believes the Jehovah's Witnesses should never
have been granted registration as he believes neither the courts nor the Justice
Ministry has the power to register religious organisations. `Articles 31 to 34 of
the civil code give the right only to register political, cultural and educational
organisations. The Jehovah's Witnesses are solely a religious group. They
therefore CANNOT be registered officially as a religious organisation.' He
claimed that no other religious groups apart from the Jehovah's Witnesses have
legal status in Georgia, despite the fact that the Jehovah's Witnesses presented
to the court a list of 16 religious entities that have registration as social
organisations, including the Union of Orthodox Christians and the Methodist
Church.

Although he cited what he believed was the `illegal' registration of the
Jehovah's Witnesses as the primary reason for his action to have their
registration revoked, Sharadze insisted that the group `works against the
twenty-centuries old Orthodox Church'. `The Jehovah's Witnesses do not
recognise Jesus Christ,' he stressed. Asked why the group's theological position
should affect their legal status, Sharadze responded: `Article 14 of our
constitution declares that the state recognises the spiritual role of the Orthodox
Church in the history of the Georgian state. The constitution defends the
Orthodox Church from sects.' Asked whether he believed other faiths that do
not recognise Jesus as God - such as Muslims and Buddhists - should also be
restricted, he responded: `Islam, Catholicism and Buddhism are traditional,
historical religions, not sects.'

But Beridze of the National Security Council was highly critical of the court's
decision to uphold Sharadze's appeal. `The constitution recognises freedom of
conscience,' she told Keston from Tbilisi on 7 July. `Though it recognises the
historical role of the Orthodox Church, at the same time it declares that each
person has the right to freedom of conscience. This right must be observed.'
She insists that the law allows registration of any organisation without
exception, including religious organisations, as long as their statutes are in
accordance with the law.

A source in Tbilisi who did not want to be identified told Keston on 7 July that
there appears to be a long-term strategy in the state apparatus to limit the
activity of Evangelical Christian groups and the Jehovah's Witnesses and,
indeed, of any groups apart from the Georgian Orthodox Church. The source
reported that a number of religious minority groups are concerned about the
implications of the latest court ruling in the Jehovah's Witness case.

Sharadze insists that Georgia should introduce its own law on religion (it is the
only former Soviet republic without one). `I'm asking the government,
president and parliament to speed up a law on religion,' he told Keston. `If such
a law is adopted it will help in the fight for a civilised religious life in Georgia.'
Beridze does not oppose the idea of a law, though she would prefer a law not
on religion but on freedom of conscience. She told Keston that some believe it
is better to have agreements between individual religious groups and the state,
such as that planned for the Georgian Orthodox Church (see KNS 10 August
1999). `But it is my personal opinion that this is not the right way. I believe
there should be a law on freedom of conscience including all aspects of the
question and based firmly on Articles 9 and 19 of the constitution which
guarantee freedom of conscience.' (END)


Copyright (c) 2000 Keston Institute. All rights reserved.