By Irakly Areshidze in Washington
Fifteen members of the Untied States Congress sent a letter to President Eduard Shevardnadze on May 15, 2002 calling on him to help bring an end to the increasing violence against religious minorities in Georgia and ensure enforcement of Georgian laws through prosecution of those who engage in such violence. The letter spoke in particular of Basili Mkalavishvili, an excommunicated former Priest in the Georgian Orthodox Church, who repeatedly led attacks against the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The letter was sent through the Untied States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency which monitors and encourages implementation of the Helsinki Accords. The Commission is chaired by Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a Colorado Republican and Co-Chaired by Representative Christopher Smith, a New Jersey Republican. Two Democrats, Senator Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Representative Staney Hoyer of Maryland serve as Ranking Members.
The issue of religious violence has plagued Georgia for a number of years. A renegade Mkalavishvili and a small mob of his supporters have reportedly attacked the Jehovah’s Witnesses approximately 80 times. The victims filed over 700 criminal complaints, but Georgian authorities have been slow to respond. A criminal trial against Mkalavishvili began on January 25, 2002, but the charges in the case are minor and should he be convicted, would not result in an extensive prison terms.
The letter from the Helsinki Commission urges President Shevardnadze to “take concrete steps to provide for the security of all Georgians without distinction as to religion.” In a statement released by the Commission, Senator Campbell stated: “President Shevardnadze and Georgian authorities appear to have turned a blind eye to the ongoing violence against certain church groups. Hopefully, this letter will send a clear message that the United States is greatly alarmed by these attacks and expects Georgian authorities to do everything possible to protect individuals, regardless of their religious faith.”
Knox Thames, a Counsel at the Helsinki Commission, praised the fact that a “broad range of the ideological spectrum” signed the letter. “This makes the message strong,” Thames said. Some of the most liberal members of the US Congress, such as Senator Hillary Clinton, Representative Alcee Hastings, and Representative Louise Slaughter joined such conservatives as Representative J.C. Watt’s (the forth ranking Republican in the House of Representatives), Representative Joseph Pitts (Co-Chairman of Congress’s Silk Road Caucus), and Smith in signing the letter.
According to Thames, it is “imperative that police no longer stand by, and instead make arrests and send a clear message that this sort of lawlessness cannot be permitted.” Thames was not receptive to the argument often heard in Georgia, that the best way to address the religious minority issue is through a law on religion. “Commission members have said again and again that religious laws and burdensome regulations are often used to discriminate” against minority religious groups.
Georgia has an extensive history for tolerance towards the religious minorities. Thousands of Georgian Jews live around the world, and have happy memories of centuries in Georgia, where they were never persecuted. King Demetre declared freedom of religion in Georgia in the twelfth century, and the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, is home to a square where a Georgian and Armenian Churches, a Jewish Synagogue and a Muslim Mosque face each other. Thus, violence against religious minorities has been hard to explain by local and international observers of the Georgian character.
Clearly one of the causes of violence is the unhappiness of many believers with the influx of religious groups who try to use economic advantages to attract worshipers by providing free food, childcare, and other services to new converts. Yet most political philosophers of liberal democracy would reason that religious freedom is arguably one of two most important freedoms in republican society, along with the freedom of speech.
Head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Catholicos Patriarch Ilia II has repeatedly condemned religious violence and has called on Georgians to respect religious minorities. Most political leaders have also taken the stand that religious violence must cease. Many have argued that the best way to deal with this issue is through the proposed law on religion. Parliamentarian Elene Tevdoradze, a strong ally of former Parliamentary Speaker Zurab Zhvania is a strongest proponent of this law.
But whether this law will help or damage Georgia’s reputation is an open question. It cannot be a simple coincidence that countries with best record on religious freedom (such as the United States) have no such laws, while those with serious religious violations in the former Soviet space (Russia, Central Asia) do.
Until recently, so called “reformers team” of the Citizens Union has been most vocal in calling for responsibility of the officials for violation of the rights of religious minorities, though some analysts have also claimed these politicians have tried to use religious violate as a means demonizing President Shevardnadze with an argument that he does not care about human rights.
Possibly in response to these charges, President Shevardnadze’s office told Rustavi-2 independent television on Saturday that the President would be issuing a decree on human rights in the nearest future and that religious freedom would be paramount in this document. However, it remains an open question whether simple statements or decrees will be sufficient to appease the international community.
It is clear that not dealing with this issue could be tremendously damaging for Georgia’s interests in the United States. According to Dr. Charles Fairbanks, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights in the Reagan Administration, “people who are most supportive of Georgia in [U.S.] Congress and government tend to be conservative, and they also are the people who concerned about freedom of religion.” As a result, the issue is of concern to Georgia’s most important friends in the United States.
“I think many Georgians do not understand how Mkalavishvili’s actions have damaged Georgia not only with political circles sensitive to religious issues in Washington, but also with people in government who work on Georgia [on a daily basis]. Knowing Georgia better than some, I can understand this as part of the very complex reaction of a formerly prosecuted Church to the post-Soviet climate, and nothing has happened [in Georgia] as bad as prosecution of Islam in Central Asia, of many religious groups in Russia, or the sordid quarrels that have divided the Ukrainian Church,” added Fairbanks, who is one of the most prominent experts of the former Soviet Union in the U.S. and serves as Director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies.
Irakly Areshidze is a Visiting Fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at the Johns Hopkins University School for Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington and Director of the Chavchavadze Center for Study of Constitutionalism and Law at Partnership for Social Initiatives (PSI) in Tbilisi; neither of the organizations are responsible for views expressed in this article. Author can be reached via email at email@example.com.