GEORGIA: After four years of attacks, a suspended sentence is given
Religious minorities in Georgia have welcomed the first criminal punishment given in four years of unpunished violence by self-styled Orthodox vigilantes, Forum 18 News Service has been told, even though the jail sentence given is a suspended sentence. However the sentenced attacker has told Forum 18 that he is innocent, that Jehovah's Witnesses violently assaulted him contrary to their past record, and that he will lodge court appeals by the end of this week. The sentenced attacker has a long record of leading raids on private flats and beating up individual believers, often working together with similarly violent Tbilisi-based Old Calendarist priest Basili Mkalavishvili, who is still free.
"We are not overjoyed - it would have been better if they had gone to prison - but we believe this is a good verdict," the Jehovah's Witness' lawyer Manuchar Tsimintia - who represented the victims in court - told Forum 18. "The conditional sentences mean that, if they do anything at all, now they will immediately be sent to prison." Malkhaz Songulasvili, head of the Baptist Church in Georgia, also welcomed what he called "the belated but expected verdict". "This is a very positive sign - this is the first time anyone involved in religious violence has been punished."
Nikolai Kalutsky, the Tbilisi-based pastor of a Russian-language Pentecostal denomination, with an affiliated congregation in Rustavi which has been threatened by Jvari members, greeted the sentences. "This is the first verdict of this type," he told Forum 18 on 5 November. "This verdict will, we hope, bring people to their senses and help to restrain such violence in future."
Another Protestant pastor, whose congregation in Rustavi has also been threatened, told Forum 18 that the verdict was a "good beginning". "We disagree with the Jehovah's Witnesses' theologically, but beating people up and breaking up meetings must be punished."
The trial of the five - which began at Rustavi city court in April - related to seven violent attacks on Jehovah's Witness meetings in Rustavi and Marneuli. "Dozens of our people were injured and hundreds were threatened and insulted," Tsimintia reported. Victims of the violence were regularly insulted in court by Bluashvili and his supporters. (At one hearing in another case last January, Bluashvili punched Tsimintia in the face in the hallway of the court.)
Bluashvili was given, by Judge Giorgi Chemer, a four years suspended jail sentence, as were two associates. Two further associates received sentences of two years' imprisoment. The judge suggested to Tsimintia that he should not attend court on 4 November to hear the verdict, for his own safety.
However, last month a court sent back for further investigation a separate case against Bluashvili related to the breaking up of two congresses in Gori and Kaspi. "More than one hundred people took part in those attacks, but for some reason only Bluashvili was charged," Tsimintia complained.
Bluashvili, who describes himself as an artist, told Forum 18 that he is a member of the St Nicholas parish of the Georgian Orthodox Patriarchate. Patriarchate spokesman Giorgi Andriadze declined to make any comment on the verdict. Also witholdng comment, for the moment, was Tamaz Papuashvili, who is responsble for religious affairs in the State Chancellery.
Rustavi was known as an atheist town during the communist period with almost no places of worship. "It was a Komsomol town," Kalutsky declared, "and that spirit lives on." When the Lutherans opened a church in the town in spring 2001, a local Orthodox priest immediately visited to find out who they were, telling them that they should not be allowed, Tbilisi-based Lutheran pastor Garri Azikov told Forum 18. The Lutherans responded that, if he wanted to know who they were, he could phone the Ministry of Justice or the Patriarchate. Azikov said. Neither the priest nor Bluashvili have troubled the congregation again.
As early as April 2001 Bluashvili was leading attacks on Jeghovah's Witness meetings, raiding private flats and beating individual Jehiovah's Witnesses. He has often worked together with Tbilisi-based Old Calendarist priest Basili Mkalavishvili, who is also the subject of a long-running but so far inconclusive trial (see F18News 5 June 2003 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=72 ). Forum 18 has learnt that he is currently in Tbilisi's 8th hospital, undergoing medical treatment, though officials claim they cannot find him.
In May this year, Bluashvili and six colleagues raided a private flat where a Pentecostal congregation was meeting, Kalutsky reported, warning them that if they ever caught them meeting again they would be beaten. Bluashvili denied to Forum 18 that this attack had taken place.
Another Protestant community, which does not want to be identified, said it too had to keep changing the venue of its meetings after being threatened. "We can't rent any buildings there and it is difficult even meeting in private flats," the pastor told Forum 18. "It was better under communism."
Oleg Khubashvili, head of the Pentecostal Union, told Forum 18 that they have a church, but cannot have a notice outside to say that it is a church. "There is not enough freedom in the town for that."
Malkhaz Songuashvil of the Baptist Church regards the Bluashvili verdict as the follow-up to promises made by President Eduard Shevardnadze, in March 2003, that all those guilty of violent attacks on religious minorities would be brought to justice (see F18News 25 March 2003 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=16 ). "We were expecting an immediate police and procuracy response," he added. "But the state chancellery told us they would only take action after the 2 November parliamentary elections." He said the verdict - handed down two days after the election - was "a landmark".
25 September 2003
The lack of legal status for non-Orthodox religious communities has led to difficulties carrying out their activities, especially over building and opening new places of worship, minority religious leaders have complained to Forum 18 News Service. "Of course this is not right," declared Pentecostal Bishop Oleg Khubashvili. "There is no religion law so there is no legal status. We want legal recognition as a Church." True Orthodox priest Fr Gela Aroshvili believes the Orthodox Patriarchate will never allow other religious communities equal rights. "When the Patriarchate got its concordat it became a monopolist and was able to obstruct everyone else," he told Forum 18. But Metropolitan Daniil (Datuashvili) of the Patriarchate rejected suggestions that his Church opposes legal status for other faiths. "On the contrary, the Orthodox Church wants all of them to get legal status as religious organisations."
25 September 2003
The Catholic Church failed in its bid to become the second religious community to gain legal status when the government abruptly cancelled plans to sign an agreement with the Vatican on 19 September. Catholic officials stressed that the Church needs the agreement. "For the past decade they kept saying a law on religion would be adopted which would grant such recognition, but it never happened," a Catholic official told Forum 18 News Service from Tbilisi. "That's the reason for the agreement." The government's change of mind followed complaints from the Orthodox patriarch and street protests. "These demonstrations were organised by the Orthodox Church, which stirred up the students by telling them the agreement was part of a plot by European and Masonic agents," Orthodox priest Fr Basile Kobakhidze told Forum 18.
14 July 2003
Racist language was again used yesterday (13 July) when self-appointed vigilantes blockaded a home in the capital Tbilisi to prevent a Russian-language Pentecostal church from meeting for the sixth Sunday in a row. "You Russians clear off back to Russia and do whatever you like there!" and "Sectarians, clear off out of Georgia!", Pastor Nikolai Kalutsky – a Georgian citizen - quoted the demonstrators as telling him. But Georgia's ombudsman has failed to support the church. "Services in the house were noisy – they sing loud hymns. This is a residential area. That's why the neighbours are complaining," Nana Devdariani told Forum 18 News Service from Tbilisi on 14 July.