KESTON NEWS SERVICE: 11.00, 10 July 2001.
Reporting on violations of religious liberty and on religion in communist
and post-communist lands.
______________________________________

I. GEORGIA: RELIGIOUS LEADERS MEET SHEVARDNADZE. In a
�unique� meeting yesterday (10 July) Georgian President Eduard
Shevardnadze spent two hours with religious leaders discussing religious
freedom and how to overcome the religious violence that has racked the
country for more than a year. Only representatives of the Georgian
Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian Apostolic, Lutheran, Baptist, Muslim
and Jewish communities were invited to attend. Metropolitan Daniel
(Datuashvili), of the Georgian Orthodox Patriarchate told Keston News
Service on 11 July that the meeting had been positive: `There is a real basis
for dialogue between the religions that exist in Georgia'.

II. GEORGIA: WILL PRESIDENTIAL MEETING END RELIGIOUS
VIOLENCE? Although promoting religious tolerance and ending the
religious violence and attacks on minority religious communities were key
themes of the 10 July meeting between seven religious leaders and President
Eduard Shevardnadze (see separate KNS article), opinions are divided as to
whether the meeting will help end the violence. `It won't end violence in
itself,' Baptist Union leader Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili told Keston
News Service on 11 July. `But if there is follow-up and the statements from
the seven religious leaders are taken seriously it will contribute to an end to
the violence. It is not the end of the violence but the beginning of the end of
the violence.'

I. GEORGIA: RELIGIOUS LEADERS MEET SHEVARDNADZE

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service

In what one participant described as `a unique meeting', Georgian President
Eduard Shevardnadze spent two hours yesterday evening (10 July) with
religious leaders discussing religious freedom and how to overcome the
religious violence that has racked the country for more than a year. `The
meeting took place at the president's invitation,' the Baptist Union leader
Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili told Keston News Service from Tbilisi on 11
July, `and was the first time the leaders of the country's seven main faiths
met together with the president.' Metropolitan Daniel (Datuashvili), who
represented the Georgian Orthodox Patriarchate at the meeting, also said it
had been positive. `There is a real basis for dialogue between the religions
that exist in Georgia,' he told Keston on 11 July.

Attending the meeting were Metropolitan Daniel, Archbishop of Sukhumi
and head of the Patriarchate's mission and evangelisation department, Bishop
Giuseppe Pasotto of the Roman Catholic Church, Bishop Gert Hummel of
the Lutheran Church, Baptist Bishop Songulashvili, Archbishop Kevork
Seraydarian of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Muslim leader Ali Ahund
and deputy chief rabbi of the Jewish community, Alexander Rosenblat.

The religious leaders presented three petitions to the president. The first,
signed by all seven faiths, called for a law on freedom of conscience
(Georgia is the only post-Soviet republic without a specific law on religion).
`Such a law is badly needed to safeguard the religious rights of citizens,'
declared Bishop Songulashvili, who presented the petitions on behalf of the
religious leaders. `All seven faiths represented at the meeting will now work
together in helping to draw up the text,' Metropolitan Daniel told Keston.

The second - described as a `peace paper' and also signed by all seven faiths
- called for religious peace and tolerance both within Georgia and in the
Caucasus region.

The third - signed only by the Orthodox, the Catholics, the Lutherans and the
Baptists - called on the president to facilitate a law governing procedures for
how religious communities, and other non-religious bodies, can engage in
humanitarian aid work, as no such law yet exists. `The churches told the
president they had the feeling that their humanitarian work was tolerated but
not welcome,' Bishop Songulashvili reported. `We asked the president to
promote the law-making process to clarify the rights and responsibilities of
religious organisations in conducting such humanitarian work.' Metropolitan
Daniel believes the meeting will help facilitate church input into the planned
legislation. `The wishes of religious groups will now be taken into account in
considering the draft of this law.' (The Armenians, the Muslims and the Jews
did not sign as they do not engage in humanitarian aid work.)

Shevardnadze indicated that he was aware of international concern over the
religious violence in Georgia. `It is not the extremists who will be held
responsible for the religious violence,' he told the religious leaders, `but the
Georgian nation.' He told them he believes religious believers of different
faiths can work harmoniously together for the benefit of the country. `I think
common sense will prevail,' he declared. He called on the leaders to
participate in the life of the country to help overcome expressions of
violence. He argued that the root of the religious violence was people's
poverty, allowing them to be easily manipulated by extremists, whether
religious or political.

Shevardnadze promised to hold further meetings with the religious leaders.
`I know you have far more concerns than those presented here,' he told them,
`but I hope in future we will be able to discuss these issues.'

Not invited to the meeting were leaders of the Pentecostal Church or the
Jehovah's Witnesses (who claim some 12,000 members in Georgia), or any
leaders of the country's less numerous faiths. `I know nothing about the
meeting,' Bishop Oleg Khubashvili, the head of the Pentecostal Union, told
Keston from Tbilisi on 11 July. `No-one has informed me about it.'

`Only the leaders of religious confessions that have a special influence or
played a role in the history of Georgia were invited,' Metropolitan Daniel
told Keston. (END)

II. GEORGIA: WILL PRESIDENTIAL MEETING END RELIGIOUS
VIOLENCE?

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service

Although promoting religious tolerance and ending the religious violence
and attacks on minority religious communities were key themes of the 10
July meeting between seven religious leaders and President Eduard
Shevardnadze, opinions are divided as to whether the meeting will help end
the violence. `It won't end violence in itself,' Baptist Union leader Bishop
Malkhaz Songulashvili told Keston News Service on 11 July. `But if there is
follow-up and the statements from the seven religious leaders are taken
seriously it will contribute to an end to the violence. It is not the end of the
violence but the beginning of the end of the violence.'

�The problem of violence won�t be solved by one meeting,� Constantin
Vardzelashvili of the Liberty Institute, a human rights group in Tbilisi which
runs a special project to monitor violence against religious minorities, told
Keston on 11 July. �While there is no sign from the law enforcement
agencies of any action being taken, I am rather pessimistic. We�ll have to see
what developments there are.�

Metropolitan Daniel (Datuashvili), who represented the Georgian Orthodox
Patriarchate at the meeting, believed the proposed new law on religion
would end the violence, although he was more equivocal about who was
responsible for the violence against religious minorities. He stressed that the
violence did not come from the Patriarchate, but complained not only of
those who cause `physical harm' but those who cause `moral harm' also.
`The reaction of the extremists to these totalitarian religious sects is not
justified, but it is in reaction to their very aggressive activities,' he told
Keston on 11 July. He believed the meeting will hope to promote stability in
the religious field by promoting a `proper legal base' for religious activity
that will `stop all violations, from one side or the other'. `The leaders of the
different religious groups issued a general declaration committing
themselves to fighting together against violence and for peaceful
coexistence.'

Most of the victims of violence at the hands of extremists have been
Jehovah's Witnesses, although Pentecostals and Baptists have also been
targeted.

Among recent incidents was a 17 June attack on a Jehovah's Witness
meeting in Tbilisi - the 77th reported attack on Jehovah's Witnesses since
October 1999. Some 50 male and female intruders - identified by the
Jehovah's Witnesses as followers of the defrocked Orthodox priest Basil
Mkalavishvili - broke into the meeting and savagely beat those present and
vandalised the home where the meeting was taking place, breaking furniture
and windows and setting fire to religious objects before fleeing. Two of the
victims were seriously injured in the attack, police said, adding that an
investigation had been launched.

The Jehovah's Witness spokesman in Georgia, Christian Presber, asked by
Keston on 11 July if he thought the meeting with the president would help
end the violence, was not optimistic: 'There have been such condemnations
before�, he said, 'but the violence has not stopped. Mkalavishvili and other
extremists will only stop when one of the perpetrators of the violence has
been prosecuted. Nothing else will stop them.'

Also attacked and broken up by thugs was a 13 June evangelistic meeting,
organised by the Pentecostal Word of Life Church in the western city of
Zugdidi, which was being addressed by a visiting Swedish pastor.

Pastor Gary Azikov, the Lutheran secretary, told Keston from Tbilisi on 10
July that the situation has recently been `a little quieter', with fewer attacks
on religious minorities. However, Bishop Songulashvili characterised the
situation as `the quiet before the storm'.

The Council of Europe, which Georgia joined in April 1999, has long been
pressuring the Georgian authorities to stamp out such violence and prosecute
the perpetrators. The head of the Council of Europe has told the Georgian
government the Jehovah's Witnesses must be better protected. `Jehovah's
Witnesses deserve the same protection of their personal physical integrity as
everyone else in Georgia,' the council's Secretary-General Walter
Schwimmer told reporters on 6 July at the end of a two-day visit to the
country.

On 29 June, the Jehovah's Witnesses filed a case at the European Court of
Human Rights in Strasbourg, citing the government's failure to punish the
perpetrators of the attacks. The application asks the Court to rule that the
government of Georgia must prosecute perpetrators of the 17 October 1999
attack on the Jehovah's Witness congregation in the Tbilisi suburb of Gldani
by Mkalavishvili and his followers which started off the series of attacks.
(END)

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