16 June 2003
Demonstrators reportedly organised by Orthodox priest Fr David blockaded a Pentecostal church in the capital Tbilisi for seven hours on 15 June, preventing believers from attending a special Pentecost service. "We will do everything to prevent you from meeting. We won't stop till there's blood," Vera Kalutskaya, wife of the pastor, quoted members of the mob as telling the Pentecostals. She told Forum 18 News Service they had threatened to kill her husband, Pastor Nikolai Kalutsky. "You have incorrect information. They were not Orthodox, they were just local residents," local police chief Timur Anjaparidze told Forum 18.
9 June 2003
Human rights activists and religious minority leaders have complained about a textbook that warns school children about the "dangers" of religious "sects". "Security: Dangerous Situations and Civil Defence", issued with Education Ministry approval last year, is used for children of 15 and 16 in the compulsory subject Security. Emil Adelkhanov of the Tbilisi-based Caucasian Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development told Forum 18 News Service that he regards the book as a further symptom of "religious hysteria" in Georgia. Baptists and Lutherans have also expressed concern. "I think the textbook encourages religious violence," Malkhaz Songulashvili of the Baptist Union told Forum 18. "If the state is serious about religious freedom it has to withdraw the book immediately and apologise for issuing it."
5 June 2003
Violent Old Calendarist priest Basil Mkalavishvili is to challenge a 4 June district court order that he be held in "preventive detention" for three months. His appeal is to be heard on 9 June at Tbilisi city court. The Baptists have been told that the closed preliminary hearing was connected with the case against Mkalavishvili for raiding a Baptist warehouse and burning copies of the Bible in February 2002. "I don't think they're going to arrest him," Malkhaz Songulashvili, head of the Baptist Union, told Forum 18 News Service. Levan Ramishvili of the Liberty Institute was equally sceptical. "If they had wanted to arrest him it would not have been difficult." Mkalavishvili – who has gone into hiding – has expressed defiance in a television interview, cursing his enemies and warning that Georgia will be struck by earthquakes if he is detained.
13 May 2003
Six months after lodging its application with the Ministry of Justice for registration as a non-governmental organisation, the Azerbaijani chapter of the International Religious Liberty Association (IRLA) seems no closer to gaining legal status. "We applied to the Ministry of Justice six months ago but as usual it provides us with no reply," secretary-general Ilgar Ibrahimoglu told Forum 18 News Service. He said he and his colleagues intend to consult the head office of the IRLA in the United States and "will probably" challenge the denial of registration through the courts. The head of the registration department of the justice ministry said he "couldn't remember" the IRLA chapter's application. "We get many applications," Fazil Mamedov told Forum 18. At the same time, he insisted there is no ban on registering non-governmental organisations that campaign for religious freedom.
8 May 2003
More than a year after the compulsory re-registration drive was due to have been completed, the senior religious affairs official in Azerbaijan's autonomous republic of Nakhichevan has admitted to Forum 18 News Service that none of Nakhichevan's dozens of religious communities has been re-registered. "It is still a question whether re-registration should take place in Baku or in Nakhichevan," Idris Abbasov, head of the Nakhichevan branch of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations, declared. "I don't know." He told Forum 18 that only Rafik Aliev, the chairman of the State Committee, knows the answer. However, no official of the State Committee in the capital Baku was prepared to talk to Forum 18. Although Abbasov denied that lack of re-registration prevented the dozens of religious communities in the autonomous republic from functioning freely, it leaves them in a legal black hole.
8 May 2003
Within days of the reopening of the Adventist church in Nakhichevan after a year when the community was banned from meeting, the local justice ministry informed the church it was seeking its liquidation through the courts. It claimed the community was wrong to have given its legal address as the church in Baku (of which it was a branch) when it registered in March 1996. One Adventist pastor told Forum 18 News Service he was reluctant to speculate on why the authorities are again seeking to prevent the church from functioning "as we don't want to offend the authorities". "But the justice ministry waited a full seven years before pointing out our mistake – and they're the people who registered our church." Idris Abbasov, head of the Nakhichevan branch of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations, denied that the Adventists were being obstructed from worshipping. "No-one has informed me of any liquidation through the courts," he claimed to Forum 18. "They're engaged in prayers and services. No-one is stopping them from doing that."
7 May 2003
First deputy finance minister Lasha Zhvania has pledged that two consignments of Jehovah's Witness literature seized by customs in the Black Sea port of Poti in March and April will be released as soon as customs procedures are complete. He strenuously denied that the shipments had been seized because they had been sent by the Jehovah's Witnesses. "It is certainly not my government's policy to obstruct people receiving religious literature of any kind," Zhvania told Forum 18 News Service. The Jehovah's Witnesses are challenging the seizures in court. "We have already presented all the documentation we need to. They should already have released the books," Jehovah's Witness lawyer Manuchar Tsimintia told Forum 18. The Jehovah's Witnesses claim that the then customs chief sent a letter to all local branches in February telling them not to allow Jehovah's Witness literature into Georgia.
6 May 2003
Nearly two months after President Eduard Shevardnadze made a high-profile pledge that those who attack religious minorities will be punished, attackers continue to enjoy state-backed immunity. On 4 May a mob stopped the Jehovah's Witnesses holding a congress in the village of Ortasheni near Gori, Genadi Gudadze, the Jehovah's Witness leader in Georgia, told Forum 18 News Service. The mayor of Gori and the police chief warned them not to hold the congress. "It is not some bandit taking action against us but the state. So who can we complain to?" Gudadze declared. "Progress since the president made his pledge is not very significant," Levan Ramishvili of the Liberty Institute told Forum 18. "Perhaps the 'mainstream' religious minorities – like the Baptists, the Catholics and the Lutherans – have seen some improvement, but the others – including the non-Patriarchate Orthodox, the Jehovah's Witnesses and Hare Krishna followers – have seen nothing change."
25 April 2003
Human rights activists, the Baptists and the Jehovah's Witnesses have criticised a secret order issued by the head of the police service last December banning members of religious minorities from working for the police. "This order is unconstitutional and violates human rights," Mikael Danielian of the Helsinki Association told Forum 18 News Service. "We regard this order as very negative," Asatur Nahapetyan, general secretary of the Baptist Union, declared. Drew Holiner, a Jehovah's Witness lawyer who defended Zemfira Voskanyan sacked earlier this year from the police for her faith, agreed. "It is clearly discriminatory," he told Forum 18. "It requires dismissal in pretty unambiguous terms of those who belong to other groups than the Armenian Apostolic Church." Forum 18 has been unable to obtain the text of the secret order and has not found any official prepared to discuss why religious minorities cannot serve in the police.
25 April 2003
Jehovah's Witness Zemfira Voskanyan, sacked from her job with the police in the wake of a secret December decree requiring members of minority faiths to be removed from the police, is back at her desk after she challenged her dismissal in court. "We reinstated her in her job," Colonel Arshaluis Budagyan of the Lori regional police, who had originally sacked her, told Forum 18 News Service. But Voskanyan's lawyer Drew Holiner said she was reinstated only on a technicality. "It fails to remove the threat to her job caused by this discriminatory order," he told Forum 18. He said she is now considering a further appeal.
16 April 2003
In the wake of an attack on independent radio station Dzveli Kalaki by axe-wielding men who destroyed the antenna and put it off the air, station director Irakli Machitadze is optimistic the attackers will be brought to justice. "There was wide publicity over the attack and officials promised that the case would be dealt with properly," he told Forum 18 from Kutaisi. He said the station's weekly Catholic programme – which has aroused the anger of the local Orthodox bishop and self-appointed vigilantes – was the most likely reason for the attack. But he vowed the Catholic broadcasts will continue. "It is a question of principle." No-one has been sentenced in Georgia for the series of attacks on religious minorities over the past few years, although the organisers are well known.
7 April 2003
True Orthodox leaders have expressed concern that the apparent closure of the criminal investigation into those guilty of destroying a True Orthodox Church in the village of Shemokmedi in south western Georgia last October will allow them to escape punishment. Deputy procurator Pridon Chanturia ordered the case to be closed on the grounds that "it was impossible to identify the organiser, encourager or perpetrator of the aforementioned criminal act". However, the chief procurator of Ozurgeti district, Yakov Iadolidze, categorically denied to Forum 18 News Service that the investigation has stopped. "The guilty will be prosecuted and there will be a criminal trial." But True Orthodox priest Fr Gela Aroshvili rejected Iadolidze's claim that the case was continuing. "He's lying. If that's so, why did they send us the 18 January decision declaring that the case was being closed?"