Religious Persecution in Georgia—How Much Longer?
FROM THE BALMY COAST of the Black Sea to the icy Caucasus Mountains, Georgia is a land of natural beauty. Thick forests, swift streams, and lush valleys adorn this mountainous region straddling the border of Europe and Asia. Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, is a bustling city where modern buildings mix with ancient architectural monuments. But Georgia’s greatest asset is its people, known for their strong family ties and warm hospitality.
Throughout history the people of Georgia have experienced oppression. Their country has been invaded by Romans, Persians, Byzantines, Arabs, Turks, Mongols, Russians, and others. By one count, Tbilisi has been destroyed 29 times!a Even so, Georgians have maintained not only their love of life, art, song, and dance but also their reputation for being a tolerant society.
Sadly, though, this can no longer be said of all people in Georgia. During the past two years, a small group of Georgians have damaged their country’s reputation by assaulting hundreds of their fellow citizens. Mobs of furious attackers have beaten innocent men, women, and children as well as elderly and disabled individuals. With the blows of nail-studded clubs and iron bars, the attackers have bruised their victims’ bodies, torn their faces, and ripped their scalps. Why are harmless Georgian citizens being beaten so viciously? Because they are Jehovah’s Witnesses—a Christian community that was present in Georgia before most of the attackers were even born.
From Denunciations to Attacks
Although religious freedom is guaranteed in Georgia, the literature of Jehovah’s Witnesses has frequently been confiscated. In April 1999, customs officials stated that the literature could be released only with the permission of the patriarch, the head of the Georgian Orthodox Church.b The following month, the Orthodox Church was mentioned again—this time in Georgia’s Isani-Samgori District Court. There, Guram Sharadze, parliamentary deputy and leader of the political movement “Georgia Above All!,” filed a lawsuit seeking to dissolve the legal entities used by Jehovah’s Witnesses. He accused the Witnesses of being antinational and dangerous. Who backed Sharadze’s claim? Attached to the lawsuit was a letter from the secretary of the Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia.
On May 20, 1999, Georgia adopted the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms and thus committed itself to upholding the convention’s articles. Article 10 states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.” Did this right stop the opposers of the Witnesses from continuing their efforts to ban religious literature? By no means!
On June 21, 1999, the Office of the Patriarch of All Georgia, in a letter to the head of customs inspection, insisted that “the distribution of foreign religious literature should be banned.” In addition, Giorgi Andriadze, an official spokesman of the Georgian Orthodox Church, declared that Jehovah’s Witnesses were dangerous and should be banned. These denunciations did not fall on deaf ears. Religious fanatics, who had burned literature of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the past, now felt confident that they could attack the Witnesses themselves and get away with it. On Sunday, October 17, 1999, they struck again.
Mob Rule Goes Unpunished
That Sunday some 120 of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Tbilisi—men, women, and children—attended a religious gathering. Suddenly, defrocked Orthodox priest Vasili Mkalavishvili and 200 of his followers burst into the meeting place.c They encircled the Witnesses and struck them again and again with their wooden clubs and iron crosses. Four attackers grabbed one Witness by his arms and neck. They yanked his head down and began to shave his head while the mob gloated over his humiliation. When the frenzied mob finally left, 16 Witnesses required hospital treatment. One man had three broken ribs. Another Witness, a 40-year-old woman named Phati, later recalled: “They began to shout at me, and one of them hit me with all his might. He hit my face, my eyes. I tried to hide my face with my hands. Blood was running down my fingers.” When this brute was finished with Phati, she could not see with her left eye. Today, Phati’s eye remains damaged as a result of the attack.
This outrageous attack, shown on television, prompted President Eduard Shevardnadze to speak up. The following day, he stated: “I condemn this occurrence and believe that the law-enforcement agencies should institute a criminal case.” Since the video footage identified the mob leader and the other attackers, convicting them would be a rather simple matter. Yet, two years later, none of the attackers have been convicted.
Emboldened by Impunity
Not surprisingly, the inaction of the authorities—secular and clerical—sent the attackers the message that violence would be tolerated. Emboldened by this impunity, they stepped up their rampage of robbing, beating, and kicking Jehovah’s Witnesses—in private homes, on the streets, and in places of worship. Between October 1999 and August 2001, there were over 80 documented attacks on Jehovah’s Witnesses, affecting more than 1,000 victims. Even so, on February 9, 2001, a city prosecutor in Tbilisi told reporters that the investigation of Vasili Mkalavishvili “is still under way.” Regrettably, at the time of this writing, Georgia’s authorities still allow the opposers of Jehovah’s Witnesses to carry out their hate crimes.—See the box “Mob Rule Continues.”
What is the role of the police? News reports and video footage reveal that the police not only allowed the attacks against Jehovah’s Witnesses but also participated in them! For instance, on September 8, 2000, in the city of Zugdidi, a group of club-wielding police officers broke up a peaceful convention of 700 of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Eyewitnesses reported that masked police officers “carved a path of destruction,” beating more than 50 Witnesses. “It was heartbreaking,” the owner of the convention site said, recalling the look of terror on the children’s faces as blank antitank shells were fired over their heads. Police stormed the site and burned it down. Yet, till this very day, they go unpunished.
Because this sordid incident is no exception (see the box “Police Participation”), on May 7, 2001, the United Nations Committee Against Torture rightly expressed its concern about “continuing acts of torture and other acts of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in Georgia committed by the law enforcement personnel; the continuing failure to provide in every instance prompt, impartial and full investigations into the numerous allegations of torture.”d Indeed, not one of the more than 400 complaints that Jehovah’s Witnesses have filed with the police has led to a conviction of the known perpetrators! Georgia’s Public Defender, or Ombudsman, who is elected by parliament, therefore commented: “Human rights are violated by the very people who are obliged, by virtue of their jobs, to protect those rights. For them, human rights are little more than a piece of paper.”
Supreme Court Decision Creates Confusion
As if illegal attacks by mobs and police were not enough, Georgia’s Supreme Court recently issued a ruling that created confusion about the rights of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Let us consider some background information. Politician Guram Sharadze filed a lawsuit seeking to dissolve the legal entities of Jehovah’s Witnesses. His suit was dismissed on February 29, 2000. However, Sharadze appealed and won. Jehovah’s Witnesses, in turn, appealed to the Supreme Court. On February 22, 2001, the Supreme Court decided against the Witnesses, basically on legal technicalities. The Supreme Court reasoned that the Constitution specifies that religions are to be registered under public law according to an as yet nonexistent law detailing the registration of religious associations. The court concluded that in the absence of this law, Jehovah’s Witnesses could not be registered in any alternative form. However, some 15 other associations supporting religious activity are legally registered in Georgia.
In reaction to the Supreme Court’s decision, Georgia’s Justice Minister, Mikheil Saakashvili, said in a television interview: “From a legal standpoint, the decision is very dubious. I don’t think it’s the most successful page in the history of the Supreme Court.” Zurab Adeishvili, the acting chairman of Georgia’s parliamentary legal committee, told Keston News Service that he was “very concerned” about the ruling because “it encourages extremist forces in our [Georgian Orthodox] Church to suppress religious minority groups.” Sadly, Adeishvili’s concerns proved justified. A few days after the ruling, the violence against Jehovah’s Witnesses resumed. In the year 2001, Witnesses were assaulted by mobs, police, and Orthodox priests on February 27, March 5, March 6, March 27, April 1, April 7, April 29, April 30, May 7, May 20, June 8, June 17, July 11, August 12, September 28, and September 30. And the list goes on and on.
In the midst of this new wave of persecution, the Supreme Court took the unusual step of clarifying its decision publicly, stating: “Unfortunately, the public has wrongly interpreted the annulment by the Supreme Court of the registration of the Union of Jehovah’s Witnesses . . . When the court registration of defendants, as a legal entity of private law, was annulled, their right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion was neither directly nor indirectly violated or restricted. Their freedom to change their belief, either alone or jointly with others, either publicly or in private, was not restricted. . . . The Court decision has not restricted the defendants’ right to receive and distribute their ideas and information. It did not prohibit their right to have peaceful meetings.”
Thousands of Georgians Speak Out Against Persecution
While it seems that this statement by the Supreme Court has had little effect on perpetrators of mob violence, it is heartening to note that thousands of citizens of Georgia have already condemned the ongoing persecution. Beginning on January 8, 2001, Jehovah’s Witnesses circulated a petition that called for protection from mob attacks and for the prosecution of those who have participated in violent attacks against Georgian citizens. Within two weeks, 133,375 adult citizens from all regions of Georgia signed the petition. Considering that there are only 15,000 of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Georgia, the overwhelming majority of those who signed were likely members of the Georgian Orthodox Church. But on January 22, 2001, the petition disappeared. What happened?
That day, in the office of Georgia’s Public Defender, Nana Devdariani, a press conference was held to release the petition formally. Suddenly, during the conference, Vasili Mkalavishvili and ten others burst into the office to seize the 14 volumes making up the petition. A representative of the Caucasian Institute for Peace and Democracy tried to protect the petition, but the invaders assaulted her. While Mkalavishvili was spewing invective, his followers wrestled 12 of the 14 volumes from the organizers and took off with them. A foreign diplomat witnessing the incident exclaimed: “This is just unbelievable!” Fortunately, on February 6, the petition again came into the possession of the Witnesses, and on February 13, 2001, it was presented to Georgia’s president.
“All Acts of Harassment . . . Will Be Prosecuted”
Jehovah’s Witnesses in Georgia and around the world count on Georgia’s president to act on this petition. After all, in the past, President Shevardnadze has repeatedly condemned the persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses. For instance, on October 18, 1999, the president described the attacks on Jehovah’s Witnesses as “pogroms” that were “intolerable.” On October 20, 2000, President Shevardnadze wrote to a member of the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses: “We will do our best to eradicate violence.” He added: “Let me assure you that the Georgian authorities will remain staunchly committed to the protection of human rights and freedom of conscience.” Again, on November 2, 2000, in a letter to the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, President Shevardnadze stated: “This issue [of the status of minority religions in Georgia] has also been the focus of serious concern among our people and the government.” He assured the commission: “All acts of harassment and physical violence will be prosecuted and the perpetrators will be held accountable before the law.”
Concerned observers in Europe and other parts of the world hope that President Shevardnadze’s firm words will soon come true. Meanwhile, Jehovah’s Witnesses worldwide persevere in prayer in behalf of their fellow believers in Georgia as these courageous Witnesses continue to serve Jehovah despite bitter persecution.—Psalm 109:3, 4; Proverbs 15:29.
b During 2001, however, the Customs Department stopped confiscating the literature of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
c Vasili Mkalavishvili was expelled from the Georgian Orthodox Church (GOC) in the mid-1990’s after harshly criticizing the GOC for its membership in the World Council of Churches (WCC). (The GOC has since withdrawn its WCC membership.) Meanwhile, Mkalavishvili has joined the Greek Old Calendarists under Metropolitan Cyprian.
d Georgia is one of the 123 states that are party to the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. As such, Georgia has committed itself to “outlaw torture.”
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“All acts of harassment and physical violence will be prosecuted and the perpetrators will be held accountable before the law.”—President of Georgia, Eduard Shevardnadze, November 2, 2000
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“We hope that this matter [of violence against religious minorities] will be resolved and all religious groups in Georgia will enjoy unrestricted freedom of expressing their religious beliefs.”—David Soumbadze, senior counselor of the Embassy of Georgia in Washington, D.C., U.S.A., July 3, 2001
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MOB RULE CONTINUES
The failure of Georgia’s authorities to convict the attackers of Jehovah’s Witnesses has exposed the Witnesses to more acts of persecution.
For instance, on January 22, 2001, in the Svanetis Ubani region of Tbilisi, former Orthodox priest Vasili Mkalavishvili and his mob invaded a religious gathering of 70 Witnesses. The attackers punched, kicked, and struck the Witnesses with wooden and iron crosses. One attacker smashed a large wooden cross over the head of a Witness with so much force that its crossbeam broke off. Some Witnesses were dragged into a dark room, where they were beaten by several attackers. Elderly Witnesses were forced to run a gauntlet while being hit with fists and crosses. Two adult men chased a 14-year-old boy and then punched and kicked the helpless lad. A 30-year-old attacker went after a 12-year-old boy and slammed a huge Georgian Bible on the child’s head. Meanwhile, a Witness ran out of the house to call the police, but he was caught. The mob hammered his face until his mouth was filled with blood and he started vomiting. Finally, the ruthless mob dispersed. The attackers remain unpunished.
Again, on April 30, 2001, the followers of Mkalavishvili broke up a religious meeting of the same congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The attackers dragged the Witnesses outside and beat them with sticks spiked with nails. The spikes tore open the right arm, left hand, left foot, and left cheek of a Witness named Tamaz. In addition, Tamaz required five stitches to close a deep gash on his head. The mob also ransacked the home where the meeting was held, smashing the furniture, electrical equipment, and all windows. Then they burned literature published by Jehovah’s Witnesses in a large bonfire. On June 7, 2001, Human Rights Watch officially requested information from Georgia’s Minister of Internal Affairs, Kakha Targamadze, and Georgia’s Prosecutor General, Gia Mepharishvili, about the steps that have been taken to prosecute the perpetrators of this and other recent attacks. So far, none of the attackers have been prosecuted.
[Box on page 21]
On September 16, 2000, police from the city of Marneuli set up roadblocks to prevent 19 buses carrying Jehovah’s Witnesses from reaching a convention location. At one roadblock, attackers hurled rocks at the buses carrying the Witnesses, striking one passenger in the head. Several Witnesses were dragged from the buses and beaten, while other passengers were robbed. At the same time, the police gave free passage to busloads of Mkalavishvili’s followers, who were bent on destroying the convention site. The mob burned one and a half tons of religious literature. Police at the scene participated in the beatings of Witnesses.
Caucasus Press reported that the Ministry of Internal Affairs would investigate this assault and take “proper measures.” Investigators have solid grounds for charging the perpetrators. The Constitution of Georgia, Article 25, guarantees the right of all people to hold a public assembly. Yet, none of the attackers have been prosecuted. Five months after this attack, Keston News Service reported that a lawyer for Guram Sharadze, the leader of the political movement “Georgia Above All!,” admitted that Sharadze had influenced the authorities in Marneuli and Zugdidi to prevent the holding of two conventions of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
[Box on page 21]
GEORGIA’S CONSTITUTION GUARANTEES PROTECTION
The Constitution of Georgia of August 24, 1995, guarantees freedom of religion and protection against brutal attacks, as the following excerpts show:
Article 17—(1) A person’s honour and dignity are inviolable. (2) Torture, inhumane, brutal or degrading treatment or punishment is impermissible.
Article 19—(1) Every individual has the right to freedom of speech, thought, conscience, religion and belief. (2) The persecution of an individual for his thoughts, beliefs or religion is prohibited.
Article 24—(1) Every individual has the right to freely receive and disseminate information, to express and disseminate his opinion orally, in writing or in any other form.
Article 25—(1) Every individual except members of the armed forces, police, and security services has the right to hold a public assembly without arms either indoors or in the open air without prior permission.
[Box on page 22]
THE WORLD IS WATCHING
How does the international community view Georgia’s failure to stop the persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses?
The governments of the United States and Great Britain jointly stated: “A meeting of the Jehovah’s Witnesses was disrupted, a large number of people were violently mistreated and others were impeded from access to the meeting. The Embassies of the United States of America and Great Britain are greatly disturbed by this and other recent serious infringements on those exercising their right of religious freedom in Georgia . . . We call upon the Government of Georgia to investigate these incidents and to be vigilant in ensuring respect for the religious rights of all.”
The chairperson of the Delegation to the European Union-Georgia Parliamentary Cooperation Committee, Ursula Schleicher, stated: “On behalf of the European Parliament delegation I wish to express my consternation of the latest incident in the series of violent attacks on journalists, human rights activists and Jehovah’s Witnesses . . . I regard this kind of act as an outrageous attack against the fundamental human rights to which Georgia is committed as a signatory of the European Convention for Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.”
The U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe wrote President Shevardnadze concerning the attacks on Jehovah’s Witnesses: “The latest events are genuinely alarming and raise fears that the situation in Georgia is getting out of hand. If nothing is done, those calling for violence against religious minorities will be encouraged to continue their rampages. We hope that you, as head of state, would set an example for the public and Georgia’s officials and send two strong, clear messages: whatever one’s views of other religions, it is impermissible to use any form of violence against its practitioners; and individuals who engage in such violence—especially policemen who either facilitate or actually participate in these disgraceful actions—will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.” This letter was signed by seven members of the U.S. Congress.
The cochairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, U.S. Congressman Christopher H. Smith, stated: “Why is Georgia not upholding religious freedom and human rights as they said they would? . . . The burning of literature is totally contrary to the Helsinki Accord and reminds some of us in the Commission of the book burnings that happened during the Nazi years.”
The acting Executive Director of Europe and Central Asia Division of Human Rights Watch wrote: “Human Rights Watch is deeply concerned about the possibility of further violence, given the Georgian government’s record of failure to prosecute perpetrators for previous violent attacks against religious minorities. We urge you to immediately call for [an] end to the attacks and to bring to justice those responsible for them.”
The world is watching. Will Georgia live up to its international commitments? Georgia’s reputation is on the line.
[Box on page 23]
AN APPEAL TO THE EUROPEAN COURT
On June 29, 2001, Jehovah’s Witnesses filed an application with the European Court of Human Rights that challenges the ongoing inaction of Georgia’s law-enforcement agencies. A few days later, on July 2, 2001, the European Court responded. The Court’s registrar wrote that the President of the Judicial Chamber was of the opinion that this case “should be given priority.”
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MAY 13, 2001-The Shamoyan family lost their home when an arsonist set it on fire
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JUNE 17, 2001-Giorgi Baghishvili was violently attacked while attending a meeting of Jehovah’s Witnesses
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JULY 11, 2001-David Salaridze was hit on the head with a club and beaten on the back and ribs when he was attacked while attending a meeting of Jehovah’s Witnesses
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JUNE 28, 2000-Arsonists destroyed literature depot of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Tbilisi
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AUGUST 16, 2000-In the Gldani-Nadzaladevi courtroom, Warren Shewfelt, a Canadian Witness, was attacked by a supporter of Vasili Mkalavishvili
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AP Photo/Shakh Aivazov