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US State Department on Georgia’s religious freedom

By Gvantsa Gabekhadze
Wednesday, May 22
The US State Department of State has released its International Religious Freedom Report for 2012. According to the report, the trend in the government’s respect for religious freedom did not change significantly during the year. The US State Department focused on the privileges of the Georgian Orthodox Church compared with some other religious groups inside the country.

“The [Georgian] authorities failed to respond effectively to the societal efforts to limit the rights of members of minority religious groups to worship. The government continued to favor the Georgian Orthodox Church (GOC) in the restitution of disputed properties,” the US State Department Report reads, adding that the government also maintained a privileged legal and tax status for the GOC and incomplete separation of church and state in public schools. Some candidates used religiously intolerant rhetoric in the parliamentary election campaign.

According to the report there were reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice. Cases reported included religious persecution, interference with the performance of religious rites and reports of physical assault, harassment and vandalism.

The report also reads that a concordat between the government and the GOC confers unique status upon the GOC; the government does not have a concordat with any other religious group. The concordat grants rights not given to other religious groups, including legal immunity for the GOC patriarch, the exclusive right to staff the military chaplaincy, exemption of GOC clergy from military service, and a consultative role in government, especially in the sphere of education.

“The GOC is the only religious group with a line item in the government budget, receiving 22.8 million lari ($13.75 million) during the year,” the report reads.

Rector of the University of Georgian Patriarchate, Sergo Vardosanidze, states that the US State Department’s statement concerning Georgia is "unacceptable interference in Georgian inner issues.”

“Georgian Orthodox Church should be privileged from the government as it expresses the religious view of a large part of the Georgian population. I do not think that the US State Department’s statements are correct, moreover, the report is a direct interference in Georgian inner issues,” Vardosanidze states.

Vardosanidze also commented on the section where the US State Department speaks on the Georgian church’s incomplete separation from schools.

“What does the separation mean in this case? There are no churches in Georgian public schools and how they might be separated? This is a very obscure statement,” Vardosanidze states.

Vardosanidze emphasized that no religious group have ever had problems in Georgia and there have never been confrontation on religious grounds inside the country.

Psychologist Nodar Sarjveladze states that there are some issues that Georgians express a high level of tolerance for and there are some cases where the Georgian citizens are not tolerant due to fundamental traditions and deep religious roots.

“Georgians have always been tolerant towards other nations and religious representatives. However, when the case touches upon sexual minorities Georgians openly express negative attitudes. For example, the protection of sexual minorities contradicts fundamental religious views, “ Sarjveladze stated, adding that the negative attitude towards the issue does not mean that Georgia’s European integration is impossible.