20 November 2003
The Salvation Army, True Orthodox Church, and Pentecostals have told Forum 18 News Service that they cannot print religious literature in Georgia, as publishers refuse to accept it without the blessing of the Orthodox Patriarchate. Giorgi Andriadze, parliamentary secretary of the Orthodox Patriarchate denies that it has any influence over what publishers may produce. "They can publish what they like," he told Forum 18. Tamaz Papuashvili, of the State Chancellery, told Forum 18 that his office has received complaints about the difficulty of printing religious literature, but says Protestants and others should simply ignore the Patriarchate. "They know perfectly well that the Patriarchate is not a state organ." Latin-rite Catholics, Assyrian Chaldean Catholics, Yezidis, and Baptists have not encountered problems in printing publications.
19 November 2003
Leaders of the Yezidi, Jehovah's Witness, Pentecostal, True Orthodox, Latin-rite Catholic, and Assyrian Chaldean Catholic communities have all told Forum 18 News Service of their concerns about school "Religion and Culture" classes being compulsory and confessionally Orthodox, not voluntary and informational. Forum 18 found only one school in Tbilisi offering non-Orthodox religion classes, Rabbi Avimelech Rosenblath of the capital's synagogue describing a state school offering Jewish classes, and some Russian-language schools in the city do not have religion classes. Catholic Bishop Pasotto told Forum 18 that some schools in southern Georgia offer Catholic religion classes. Surprisingly, unregistered Baptists have not complained about the Orthodox classes.
19 November 2003
Parents of children in Georgian schools have complained to Forum 18 News Service that voluntary "Religion and Culture" school classes are confessionally Orthodox in nature and are compulsory. However Zurab Tsokhvrebadze, of the Orthodox Patriarchate, denied that religious education is confessional Orthodox. "Schools are state-run and religious education is general Christian education," he told Forum 18. "Teachers have to follow the state syllabus. It is impossible for teachers to propagandise for any one faith, including Orthodoxy." Tamaz Papuashvili, of the State Chancellery, is critical of the system. "It is only compulsory in that teachers give pupils the lowest possible mark if they don't go." and said that pupils are sometimes required to pray. "I haven't visited these classes, but parents tell me this," he told Forum 18. "Some think it's good, others think it's bad. I believe prayer should be in church, not in school."
17 November 2003
Leaders of many religious minorities have told Forum 18 News Service that they want legal status, as without this they cannot own property, maintain bank accounts, or go to law as communal entities. "All confessions were equal until the concordat with the Patriarchate was adopted," Tamaz Papuashvili of the State Chancellery told Forum 18, "then the Patriarchate was given special privileges.". A seemingly disused Soviet-era legal quirk punishes refusal to register congregations and organising religious work with young people. But police recently cited it in a letter to Pentecostal Pastor Nikolai Kalutsky banning him from using his home for religious services without special permission and warning him that if he did this, he would be fined twice the minimum monthly wage. Kalutsky has been prevented from holding services at his home by self-styled Orthodox mobs. Baptist Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili points out that major politicians have not publicly spoken up for religious freedom and believes the political climate has worsened since the election. "We question the genuineness of the pro-Western, democratic political forces – none of them have raised their voice against religious violence, for example," he told Forum 18.
14 November 2003
Latin-rite Catholics, Assyrian Chaldean Catholics, Pentecostals, Yezidis (a uniquely Kurdish ancient faith), True Orthodox, Lutherans, Old Believers, Muslims and Jehovah's Witnesses have all told Forum 18 News Service that the Georgian Orthodox Patriarchate has either caused them problems in or prevented them from acquiring, building or reclaiming places of worship. A leading Yezidi, Agit Mirzoev, told Forum 18 that he had been told by friends of Patriarch Ilya "that it would be an insult for the patriarch to even discuss the subject". However, the Salvation Army, possibly because of its social projects, has not had problems and nor has either the Armenian Apostolic Church, or the Hare Krishna community. The Georgian Orthodox Patriarchate itself is currently building many new churches.
13 November 2003
Opinions on whether Jvari, a self-styled Georgian Orthodox organisation that has been terrorising religious minorities, should be banned are divided. Human rights activist Levan Ramishvili told Forum 18 News Service that "More important is for its members to be prosecuted.". Members of minority faiths – speaking on condition of anonymity – and western diplomats told Forum 18 that Jvari should have been banned when it began its reign of terror against religious minorities. But diplomats privately expressed little hope to Forum 18 that the authorities would take steps to prosecute those responsible for hundreds of violent attacks against Jehovah's Witnesses and Protestants. Jvari's leader, Paata Bluashvili, told Forum 18 "We're just defending our faith. The Jehovah's Witnesses and all these other groups are criminal sects – they should be banned."
5 November 2003
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.
3 November 2003
Following Forum 18 News Service's report of official threats to a local Baptist, Nagorno-Karabakh authorities have defended to Forum 18 the actions they took against him and their restrictions on minority religious activity. The authorities state action was taken, not on the basis of martial law as police claimed but, on the basis of street-trading and customs legislation, and deny that threats were made against the Baptist or his family. The authorities also point out that the only faith to have state registration is the Armenian Apostolic Church. Nagorno-Karabakh states that it abides by international human rights agreements. However all such agreements prevent religious activity being restricted because religious communities either do not have or wish to acquire state registration.
24 October 2003
A Baptist in Nagorno-Karabakh has been beaten up, threatened with mind-altering drugs and had threats against his wife, for distributing religious literature on the street. At the same time his local church had all its religious literature confiscated. Police claim this is legal under martial law, which amongst other restrictions on civil liberties bans the activity of "religious sects and unregistered organisations". However a senior Nagorno-Karabakh representative has claimed to Forum 18 that martial law restrictions have ended and that "There are no restrictions on the activity of any religious communities". Other Protestants, Pentecostals, Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses have also all faced restrictions on their activity which still continue. At the same time the Armenian Apostolic Church has become the de facto state religion.
22 October 2003
Prominent independent Muslim leaders Ilgar Ibragimoglu and Azer Ramizoglu have not been detained and are safe in hiding, one of their colleagues reported. Seymur Rashidov, spokesman for religious freedom group Devamm, told Forum 18 News Service that on 20 October Ibragimoglu, imam of the Juma mosque in Baku's old city, left the Norwegian embassy where he had sought refuge to avoid arrest after the police raided Friday prayers on 17 October. Rashidov complained of continuing media attacks on Ibragimoglu and his colleagues and the continued denial of registration for three Muslim and religious freedom organisations. "The authorities don't want anyone in the country to investigate religious freedom because there are so many violations." He said tens of thousands of Muslim women who had refused to be photographed without headscarves for their identity documents were denied the ability to vote in the 15 October presidential election.
20 October 2003
Amid the widespread violence in the wake of the 15 October presidential elections, police swooped on the Juma Mosque in the capital Baku during Friday prayers on 17 October and tried to arrest the imam Ilgar Ibragimoglu and one of his close colleagues Azer Ramizoglu. "They wanted to arrest me and radicalise the believers," Ibragimoglu told Forum 18 News Service from the Norwegian embassy in Baku, where he has taken refuge. He said he was "very worried" about Ramizoglu, who has not been seen since 17 October. "I don't know if he is in hiding or if he has been detained by the authorities." The two – both supporters of failed presidential candidate Isa Gambar - are leading members of religious freedom group Devamm, which has long been denied official registration, and the Islam-Ittihad society, whose registration was stripped from it by a Baku court in August. "Ibragimoglu will be a guest of the Royal Norwegian embassy until the matter is resolved," an embassy official told Forum 18.
9 October 2003
With ten Jehovah's Witness conscientious objectors sentenced to terms of between one and two years since the new Criminal Code came into force on 1 August and another expecting to be tried around 25 October, the special representative in Armenia of the Council of Europe secretary general says such continuing sentencing violates Armenia's commitments to end the practice of imprisoning conscientious objectors. "All the conscientious objectors should have been freed in line with Armenia's commitments back in January 2001, when it joined the Council of Europe," Natalia Voutova told Forum 18 News Service. But Narine Nikolian, Armenia's deputy representative to the Council of Europe, denied this, insisting to Forum 18 that no-one can be released from what she claimed is their constitutional obligation until a new alternative service law is adopted.