Basili the Omnipotent

Familiar Face of the Religious Extremism

Increasing US financial and military aid to Georgia is posed double the US attention to country’s human rights practices. In curbing the rampant religious extremism the government is likely to receive only lukewarm popular support.

On April 4, president Shevardnadze made a special announcement regarding US State Department’s criticism of Georgia’s human rights practices, reflected in an annual report on human rights published March 4, 2002. Freedom of religion and the violence against religious minorities represent one of the central themes of the report.

Despite the constitutional guarantees for the freedom of religion, assaults on religious minorities by the crowd armed with the big wooden crosses have become an integral part of Georgia’s everyday life. Excommunicated Orthodox priest, Basili Mkalavishvili is a familiar face of the religious extremism regularly seen as leading the crowds of his supporters, and slamming the “sects” both literally, and through the media channels.

With a missionary zeal Father Basili (as his supporters call him) ritualized the violence against the members of the non-traditional and protestant religious minorities. While the men beat “sectants” and destroy worship houses, middle-aged women praying and chanting the religious chorales forcefully take their literature and burn it publicly.

Appeal of Basili’s supporters accuse the minorities in subversive actions and taking advantage of the economic hardship to convert the Orthodox Christians by promises of monetary and humanitarian assistance. These statements tend to appeal to the Georgian public, somewhat forgetful of the fact that the existing tax code grants tax exemptions only to the Georgian Orthodox Church.

The US State Department report exposes the legal gaps in Georgian civil code that exposes the minorities to extremist attacks. “There are no laws regarding the registration of religious organizations. Religious groups that perform humanitarian services may be registered as charitable organizations, although religious and other organizations may perform humanitarian services without registration. Organizations that are not registered may not rent office space or import literature, among other activities.  Individual members of unregistered organizations may engage in these activities as individuals, but are exposed to personal legal liability in such cases”.

The high media exposure and influence that Mkalavishvili’s group commands, creates the air of Father Basili’s omnipotence. It is striking, that during the raids police was either seen present on site, calmly observing obviously criminal activity or arriving just a bit too late. According to the report, “there were a number of cases in which police not only failed to intervene to protect such minorities from attacks by Orthodox extremists but also participated in or facilitated the attacks”.

Some high police officials were quoted in Georgia’s Public Defender Report saying that their duty is “to defend the society against the perverse influence of sects”.

Though, since president required that religious intolerance is prevented and the guilty punished according to law, an attempt was made to detain Father Basili the same day, but the court refused to issue the arrest warrant. During his arrest, Basil’s supporters threatened with mass violence and the protests against the government. And there are reasons to suspect, that the government officials see these as credible threats.

Then, what is the main source of Basil’s omnipotence?

Some analysts argue, that by covertly supporting father Basili the authorities particularly the police, attempts to improve upon its corrupt reputation in society. Against the background of mass frustration and aggressive attitudes towards government, police and politicians strive to create an image of the defenders of faith and of the traditional values.

The report emphasizes that “some nationalist politicians continued to use the issue of the supremacy of the Georgian Orthodox Church in their platforms”.

Secondly it is a grim reality that there is a popular sympathy towards the religious extremists’ actions. According to the popular wisdom, sects are manipulated by someone ‘hostile forces’ with the purpose of destroying the Georgian nation-state.

“Father Basili defends Georgians; we would not let anybody to take away our faith”, says unemployed Maka excitedly, and she reflects the view of the many.

Some argue that the adoption of the special law on religion will settle the conflict and normalize relations among different religious groups. But critics say that in the forthcoming local and parliamentary elections politicians will try to please an influential Georgian Orthodox Church to gain the votes.

The probability is high that parliamentarians pass laws that would grant the Georgian Orthodox Church special status and restrict the activities of missionaries from nontraditional religions, is high.

The Orthodox Church publicly condemns the activities of the extremists, however, it professes similar, but milder criticism of the religious minorities.

Thus, the arrest and punishment of father Basili would not solve the problem. The silent consent of substantial part of society, indeed, guarantees Basili’s immunity and determines his success.

Until the citizens of Georgia realize, that everybody is entitled to worship freely without outside interference, “Basilis” are likely to be free and shape Georgian’s public opinion. 

By Revaz Bakhtadze, Civil Georgia