Violence Against Religious Minorities Continues in Georgia

One year after Georgia's ''Rose Revolution'' saw the end of large-scale violence against religious minorities, violent incidents and threats of violence are continuing in the South Caucasus natio
( [email protected] ) Nov 05, 2004 06:21 PM EST

One year after Georgia's "Rose Revolution" saw the end of large-scale violence against religious minorities, violent incidents and threats of violence are continuing in the South Caucasus nation, a Norway-based persecution monitor reported Friday. Although violence has reduced, Lutherans, Pentecostals and other Protestants have reported lower-level violence and threats of violence and obstruction to their right to hold public worship services in the past two months.

While some religious communities have not reported physical violence against them in recent months, Forum 18 reported that several have complained of threats and intimidation. In early October, Lutheran Bishop Andreas Stoekl traveled to lead a service in a small church in the town of Bolnisi, south west of the capital.

"They found a poster on the door of the church declaring 'We do not want you here – leave this place’," Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili, head of the Baptist Church of Georgia, told Forum 18.

Songulashvili said the following Sunday the Lutherans found another poster with threats and the door of the church was deliberately damaged so badly that it could not be opened.

Meanwhile, Pastor Georgi Chitadze of the Word of Life church in the town of Gori reported that their congregation in nearby Rustavi is still being denied the possibility of renting any public hall in the town for worship. "We asked again in mid-October and they told us again that halls are for cultural purposes, not for religious events," he told Forum 18.

While he maintained that life for Georgia's religious minorities has improved over the past year, Chitadze said local officials are still refusing to register the church's ownership of an office it bought in Gori three years ago. "There is an oral instruction not to register it, though we have paid all the fees and presented all the documents," he reported. "We have taken this up locally and nationally, but the authorities are afraid to help us. They're afraid religious violence will break out again."

Zurab Khutsishvili, who has been in charge of a congregation of some 25 adult Baptists for the past four years, received permission to construct a building on land he owns in the village of Velistsikhe. However, Pastor Levan Akhalmosulishvili, a leading member of the independent Association of Christian-Baptist Churches, reported that shortly after Khutsishvili started to build the house, a policeman arrived, issuing threats.

“The policeman told Khutsishvili he would drive him out of the village," Akhalmosulishvili said.

Insisting that Khutsishvili has the full right to build his house, Akhalmosulishvili told Forum 18, "All the documents have been drawn up correctly and approved."

At the end of October, Akhalmosulishvili reported, local villagers beat two fellow-Baptists who were helping Khutsishvili construct the building.

He says that other communities of the Association of Christian-Baptist Churches, one of three Baptist jurisdictions in Georgia, have faced similar opposition from local people.

At the end of October, a house in the village of Kuchatani in Kvareli [Qvareli] district of eastern Georgia used as a simple church for up to fifteen local Baptists was attacked twice in the night. "The first time the young lads broke the windows," Akhalmosulishvili reported. "The second time they came back and smashed the doors and furnishings inside."

The church had only just been repaired when it was attacked. Akhalmosulishvili said when the Baptists complained about the attacks to the local administrative head he denied any knowledge of them.

Kuchatani is only some 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the village of Akhalsopeli, where a Baptist church affiliated with the separate and larger Baptist Church of Georgia was burnt out by a mob in June 2003.

Akhalmosulishvili said the October attacks are the latest in a long-running series affecting congregations in his Baptist Association. "Last spring in a village in the Pankisi Gorge, a Baptist was invited by local people," Akhalmosulishvili told Forum 18. A mob of drunken men then came to drive out the Baptist.

“After the Baptist spoke to the men for an hour they told him if he didn't clear out he would leave as a corpse. He was nearly killed," the pastor reported.

He said in 2003 a local Baptist congregation was forced to move its meeting place in the village of Vanta in Telavi district.

"We still can't build churches," Akhalmosulishvili told Forum 18. "If we did so there would be a revolution." He says his Association has 14 congregations plus 20 smaller groups. In places where the Association does not have a building already, congregations have to meet in private homes.

Despite the change of regime in Georgia at the end of last year, when then-president Eduard Shevardnadze was ousted and Mikheil Saakashvili was elected president, there are still reports of opposition to the region’s religious minorities.

[Source: Forum 18]