Hardliner priest freed from jail
By Mikheil Svanidze
Tuesday, July 29
An infamous priest known for his violent campaign against religious minorities was freed July 25 after four years in jail.
Basil Mkalavishvili, known to his supporters as Father Basili, was arrested in 2004 for attacking Georgian Jehovah’s Witnesses and Baptists and burning their religious literature. He was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment.
Mkalavishvili is in poor health and suffered from several strokes in prison, according to the country’s human rights ombudsman, Sozar Subari.
The priest was excommunicated from the Georgia Orthodox Church in 1995 for denouncing moves toward “ecumenism.”
Church representatives were not available for comment.
After his excommunication, Mkalavishvili set up his own “eparchy” in a Tbilisi suburb, intermittently leading violent raids against gatherings of religious minorities. Mkalavishvili and his supporters justified the assaults as part of a struggle against “heresy” in Georgia, where roughly 85 percent of people are of the Georgian Orthodox faith.
He had backing from Georgian politicians like the late nationalist Guram Sharadze.
Mkalavishvili’s parish routinely demonstrated against religious minorities, bearing up banners with phrases like “I burned the sectarian literature.”
Father Basili also criticized President Mikheil Saakashvili at a Tbilisi demonstration in 2004 shortly before his arrest and soon after the Western-backed Rose Revolution which brought the Saakashvili administration to power.
“Georgia has become another US state, governed by George Soros,” Mkalavishvili said then.
The human rights ombudsman, Sozar Subari, said he asked for the priest to be paroled. The firebrand cleric is no threat to anyone now, Subari says.
”I saw [Mkalavishvili] a few times in prison, most recently a few months ago. I demanded his release because of his deteriorating health, the fact that he doesn’t pose a danger and that he committed no violations in prison,” the human rights ombudsman said.
He also said that though his own views were far from those of the priest’s, “tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands” of Georgians have views identical to those of Father Basili.
Well-known religious commentator and analyst Basil Kobakhidze, himself a former priest, agrees that support for hardliners remains.
“Nothing has changed in terms of religious tolerance in society in last five years, if we don’t count [the fact that] violent assaults on religious minorities are no longer broadcast on TV,” Kobakhidze said. “There’s a slight change in the government’s approach, but religious rights are violated all over.”
To Father Basili’s supporters, however, he was not trampling minorities’ rights but rather protecting Georgian values.
“Father Basili is a good man, a real Georgian, and he defends our country from the unbelieving,” said Gogi, a Tbilisi taxi driver, soon after news of his release became public.