vendredi 30 mai 2008

In Georgia, Religious Minorities Remain in the Shadow

Article published in, 08/02/2007 Issue
By Nicolas LANDRU in Tbilisi, translated by Kathryn GAYLORD-MILES and Aaron FERRIS

© Nicolas Landru (Catholic Church in Tbilissi)

Until the Rose Revolution, Georgia attracted international attention because of attacks against religious minorities committed by radical factions of the Orthodox Church, particularly Christian churches. The new government in power has taken spectacular measures in the larger frame of the fight against crime. Among these measures is the March 2004 arrest of the defrocked priest Basili Mkalavishvili, a charismatic leader of attacks on religious minorities. The official discourse often mentions this date as the end of “persecutions.” This vision however, if it supports a real improvement, is seen as covert by the activism of fundamentalist Orthodox groups and poorly hides the malaise of minority groups in Georgian society. The events that arose with the publication of the book For Truth and Justice on the Ivlita Church show that the problems religious minorities have encountered for nearly twenty years are still in existence.

At the end of the 1980s, the Georgian Popular Front expressed the values of a sovereign Georgia. Activists in the national revival closely associated Georgian identity with Orthodoxy, notably because Orthodoxy was the royal religion of the Golden Age in the 12th century, a principle reference in the national statebuilding effort. While over the course of the centuries Georgian populations have professed a number of diverse confessions and while other ethno-religious groups have become deeply implanted in the territory, Orthodoxy—which in 1989 represented the birth religion of barely two-thirds of residents—has become a sine qua non of adhesion to the nation.

At the center of this religious revival, which comes after seventy years of state-sponsored atheism, other religions are perceived as threats. The first president of independent Georgia, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, declared in front of the mosque in Batumi, capital of Adjara, an autonomous republic traditionally populated by Georgian Muslims, “Are you Georgians or not?”

During the troubles of civil war, ethnic and religious minorities are the first targets of nationalist organizations. From 1989, followers of Hare Krishna have been persecuted by the paramilitary group Mkhedrioni. In particular, “non-traditional” Christian churches, those that national canons do not recognize as historically implanted in Georgia and which present potential competition to the Orthodox faith, are victims of vexations. During the Shevardnadze period the paralysis of society and the corruption of both the police and tribunals left these groups with few means of defense.

Radical Orthodox foundations were created in the 1990s, with the mission of eradicating heretics including not only sects and Protestantism, but Catholicism as well. Extremist brotherhoods were formed. The Mdzleveli and Jvari organizations target assemblies, meetings, constructions, isolated persons or religious symbols; auto-da-fés multiplied. Jehovah’s Witnesses, which have been present in the country since the 1950s, became targets of aggression, just as the Baptists and Seventh-Day Adventists did. In the early 2000s, Father Basili’s attacks reached their apex. The Rose Revolution would come to put an end to the systematical impunity of this type of aggression.

Acts of Violence since “Father Basili”

Contrary to that which the government often seeks to prove, the highly publicized arrest of Father Basili has not eliminated fundamentalism. However, the bases for a state of law were laid down and those who commit violent acts are more regularly harassed by the police. That the police do not directly take part in the aggressions and no longer imprison Jehovah’s Witnesses is in itself a decisive progress. The tribunals are no longer shortened, or are less openly so. According to Beka Mindiashvili, a government ombudsman, there were approximately 800 attacks against Jehovah’s Witnesses prior to the arrest of Father Basili. Since then, approximately thirty have been reported. Nevertheless, the measures taken in the beginning of 2004 did not address the root of the problem.

Certain extremist priests are still widely active. The metropolitan Kalistrat of Kutaisi proffers violent sermons against Catholics, a historically important congregation in Imereti. Father David Isakadze of the Church of Dighomi in Tbilisi attacks Pentecostals, or tries to convert Assyrian Catholics into adherents to Orthodoxy. Recently, he referred to the evangelical pastor as “Luther’s monkey.” Beka Mindiashvili enumerates crimes against people and buildings or insults against religious groups. In 2006 they attained neither the gravity nor the number of recent years, but they do remain a constant in Georgian daily life and are often neglected by the media.

If the change of government saw an increase in law enforcement, the 2003 promotion of the Orthodox Church to the heart of power goes hand-in-hand with a second religious revival. Paradoxically, while their situation has unquestionably improved, religious minorities subsequently find themselves in a social position no less delicate than before.

Pressures of Society

The Orthodox Catholicos, Ilia II, has never incited violence. While the violent acts are the work of marginal groups, certain observers consider them to be brought on by the climate of intolerance flooding Georgian society. Although many politicians consider the remedy to involve strengthening the State, Emil Adkhanov, a human rights activist, finds that the problem is much more complex: “It is necessary to proceed with the general education of the society, as in the Age of Enlightenment. Ignorance is the basis of intolerance.”

The falsification of religious history gives rise to conditions provoking animosity towards other religions. Mass media often plays a negative role in this respect, serving pro-Orthodox publicity. The television network Imedi comments only on Orthodoxy. When other religions aren’t portrayed negatively, as with ethnic minorities they are often ignored completely by Georgian media.

In addition, the violent intervention of the Orthodox groups in social issues shows that they are positioning themselves as guardians of the national morale. At the beginning of 2006, fundamentalists attacked the Rustaveli movie theater for having shown the film “The Da Vinci Code.” The fight against other religions shares the same politics.

The Question of Status

In the last 20 years minority religions have lost many adherents. Just as many Georgians have Georgianized their names, a number of Georgians of non-orthodox origin have converted to orthodoxy for safety or for the purpose of avoiding ostracism. Today, the phenomenon is blatant in Adjara, of the breakaway region which returned to Tbilisi’s control in 2004. In July 2006, the third mass conversion took place in Kobuleti and 300 Muslims embraced the Orthodox faith.

Since 2002, a decree has given the Orthodox Church an exceptional legal status, although no other religion has received such a status. The contracted privileges are numerous: the Orthodox clergy is exempt from military service, the fundamentals of Orthodoxy are taught in schools, diplomas from Orthodox universities are officially recognized, there are 12 official holidays for Orthodox saints, etc.

In terms of losing ground and being officially discriminated against, other religious groups have expressed different demands. Certain protestant and Muslim organizations have chosen to register themselves as NGOs. Catholics and Armenian Apostolics, among others, have been claiming the same legal titles as the Orthodox Church with no success.

The Churches’ Quarrel

These two communities have a second mutual problem: that of Catholic and Armenian churches from the pre-Soviet era, occupied by Orthodox priests at the time of Georgian independence. The State has refused to return the other churches that remain in its property to their original owners. This matter of contention specifically concerns six churches for each community. The sensitivity of the issue in the national public opinion, which sees the return of the churches as a menace to the Orthodox nation, is dissuading policy from agreeing with the claims.

The issue of the Ilvita church intervenes in this context. Ilvita is a church in Meskheti, which was Catholic prior to the Soviet era and is situated in a Catholic majority. It was recently occupied by an Orthodox priest, who vandalized the tombs of French missionaries as well as other signs of Catholicism. The theologian Nugzar Papuashvili and the Catholic priest Gabriele Bragantini published a book For Truth and Justice on the Ivlita Church, which calls the recent events there a “theft of heritage.”

During presentations of the book on October 25 and November 27, 2006, members of the groups “The Union of Orthodox Parents” and “The Society of Saint David the Reconstructor,” led by Father David Isakadze, burst into the room. They insulted the authors and their partners and tried to physically hit them. “I know these people well. What happened is, in my eyes, a trend,” explained Father Bragantini, pointing to a pile of publications denouncing the Catholic heresy and provoking hatred against it.

1 commentaire:

Noel Farman a dit…

interessant, riche et édifiant.

Noel Farman