Public Defender Presents Recommendations on Freedom of Religion, Religious Minorities

On September 24, the Public Defender of Georgia Nino Lomjaria, working in collaboration with the Council of Religions of the same agency, presented a set of recommendations regarding challenges pertinent to freedom of religion, and issues affecting religious minorities.

The recommendations address Georgian authorities and media, outlining eight broad issue areas: legislative regulation of freedom of religion; crime motivated by intolerance; state policy in the field of freedom of religion; property and property issues; border crossing and the import of religious literature; police conduct in the regions inhabited by ethnic/religious minorities; education; hate speech, anti-Western propaganda, diversity, and media.

The study was published by the Tolerance Center of the Public Defender of Georgia with the support of the Promoting Integration, Tolerance and Awareness Program (PITA) of the UN Association of Georgia, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

The report notes that although Georgian legislation ensures freedom of religion and belief to a high standard, non-dominant religious communities, unlike the Georgian Orthodox Church (GOC), are “disprivileged by discriminatory norms.”

The report highlights that laws on the acquisition of property only permits the GOC to do so. It describes property-related issues as “one of the major and systemic challenges” for religious minorities, claiming that after the restoration of independence in 1991, restitution of Soviet-confiscated historical property only applied to the GOC. “State transferred ownership of the buildings that belonged to other religious communities to the Georgian Patriarchate, in addition to its historical property,” the report adds.

According to the document, the said practice continues to this day, while  non-dominant religious communities face “discriminatory barriers during the construction and acquisition of religious buildings.” 

Non-dominant religious groups also face unequal treatment when crossing the state border and importing religious literature, such as detainment for unreasonable periods upon checking travel documents, and selective luggage examinations, the report reads.

The report commends the Interior Ministry for establishing the Human Rights Department to monitor hate crime investigations, however, underlines shortcomings in government policy in conducting investigations. 

Recalling the murder case of human rights defender Vitali Safarov on anti-Semitic grounds, the document says the Tbilisi City Court failed to find two persons guilty of murder on grounds of national intolerance. The document recommends the Interior Ministry to grant investigative functions to the Human Rights Department, to ensure that attacks on grounds of religious intolerance are classified as hate crimes.

According to the recommendations, the Interior Ministry must also critically study police practices in areas populated by ethnic and religious minorities, develop an adequate communication strategy and ensure that policy adheres to religious neutrality.

The document underscores that the principle of religious impartiality is violated during early, general, and higher education. It says minority groups, as well as foreign students, face discriminatory attitudes from their peers, administration, and academic staff, with the Ministry of Education “lacking the necessary political will” to address the issue.

The report expresses concern over the rise of intolerant, xenophobic messages, with media outlets often acting as sources of encouraging xenophobic attitudes due to unqualified coverage. In this context, the report also claims that messages demonizing the West, and presenting Russia as a positive alternative have become predominant.

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