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Religious Freedom in Georgia, the 2018 report

By Inga Kakulia
Tuesday, June 25
A new constitution went into effect in December 2018 in Georgia, guaranteeing the “absolute freedom of religion,” as well as the separation of the Georgian Orthodox Church (GOC) from the state along with the equality for all, regardless of religion.

United States Department of State recently published a report on religious freedom in Georgia, evaluation of the execution of the said new constitution.

The amendments caused a backlash at the beginning, with the critics saying that these changes allowed limiting freedom of religion on national security grounds. Later, the decision was made to deduct the tax and property privileges of the GOC. Despite this, the Government still recognizes the GOC’s special role in the country’s history but still stipulates the relationship with the GOC should be governed by a constitutional agreement, The Concordat.

The report highlighted the instances where the Georgian Government’s chosen approach was compromised or challenged, following up with the examples that occurred during the last year.

“The report mentioned the initiative of the “Alliance of Patriots” when in April a member of Parliament from the Alliance of Patriots political party introduced a draft of a “blasphemy law” that would criminalize “insults to religious feelings.”

Although the draft generated significant discussion about religious sentiment, free speech, and the “defense” of Georgia’s traditions and history, parliament ultimately did not pass the legislation.

Despite that, the discussion about the freedom of speech and the possible regulations on hate speech are still going on. As the former chairman on the Parliament mentioned recently with the journalists, the discussion about hate speech is supposed to begin again in the official format shortly.

The report also mentioned the instance of protesters attacking two Rustavi 2 journalists after one “insulted [their] religious feelings” with an on-air joke that involved Jesus Christ. Afterwards, the Authorities arrested six individuals on charges of group hooliganism, and an investigation of threats against the journalist was ongoing at year’s end.

According to the Public Defender’s Office, it received 19 accounts of violence on the ground of religious intolerance during the year, 14 more than in 2017. The report also stated that the cases from the previous years remain mostly unresolved. The 2018 study conducted by the Council of Europe found that 36% of the people think of diversity as a negative trend, saying it “threatens the culture and traditions. “Attitudes towards religious minorities, migrants from countries outside Europe and LGBT people are generally more negative,” the study says.

But according to the assessment of NGO Tolerance and Diversity Institute the Ministry of Internal Affairs was correctly applying proper articles of the criminal code and the quality of investigations of crimes motivated by religious hatred has improved since 2017, but several cases from previous years remained pending.

Another finding of the report was that non-GOC religious organizations continue to face government resistance when attempting to obtain construction permits for houses of worship, as was the case with the Batumi mosque. The Muslim community of Adjara has been trying to obtain permission to build a new mosque for a while now. As of today, there is only one mosque in Batumi, although Muslims make up 25 percent of the city’s population.

The Mosque Construction Fund first addressed the court in June 2017, after applying for a construction permit was rejected. The consensus has yet to be reached between the Muslim population of Batumi and the City Hall. Muslim community members said there was a lack of transparency around government decisions on mosques and their construction. The Muslim community continued to dispute the Government’s ownership of mosques in Kvemo Kartli, Adigeni, and Adjara.

According to the report, the societal bias in favor of the GOC is the major contributor to the resistance.

TDI continued to report cases of religious discrimination in schools, including incidents involving the promotion of GOC theology in religion courses, GOC prayers conducted in classrooms, and the display of icons and other religious symbols in schools, despite the law’s prohibition of proselytization. The Ministry of Education’s General Inspection Department continued to be responsible for dealing with complaints of inappropriate teacher behavior.

According to a TDI report, while the law governing general education provides for religious neutrality and non-discrimination, religious education in public schools persisted.

Intolerant statements on television, online, and in printed media by media representatives, political parties, clergy, civic organizations has also increased compared to last year. The rise in the intolerant statements, as well as the assault cases on religious grounds, shows that despite the changes in the constitution, the implementation of these changes is still a challenge in need of additional attention.