The U.S. State Department issued a report on June 10, taking stock of religious freedom in Georgia and spotlighting major concerns voiced by local watchdogs and religious denominations.
In 2019, Georgian law enforcement authorities investigated 44 cases involving crimes with alleged links to religious discrimination, including “unlawful interference with the performance of religious rites, persecution, and damage/destruction of property” – reads the report. A total of 19 complaints were lodged at the Public Defender’s Office – ten of which featured violence.
The State Department draws on the report by the Media Development Foundation, a local watchdog, which documented 55 instances of religiously intolerant remarks in national media – a fall by 93 compared to 2018. The report further cites the PDO and religious denominations raising the issue of “widespread societal perception that religious minorities posed a threat to the GOC and the country’s values.”
The State Department notes that, during the reporting period, the National Agency of Public Registry rejected the registration applications of six religious groups on grounds that “they did not demonstrate historic ties to Georgia or were not recognized as a religion by Council of Europe countries.”
Most correctional facilities continued to have GOC chapels but “no areas for nondenominational worship,” says the report.
Religious Hate Crimes
The State department mentions one high-profile case – murder of Vitali Safarov, a human rights activist who had Jewish and Yezidi roots. The report adds that the local court ruled the killing was not a hate crime of “racial, religious, national, or ethnic intolerance.”
Meanwhile, the State Department notes, international watchdogs and Georgian CSOs disagree, pointing to evidence that perpetrators “belonged to neo-Nazi groups and held ultranationalist prejudices.”
Georgian Orthodox Church
The report highlights benefits granted to the GOC regarding payment of taxes on the construction, restoration and maintenance of religious buildings and the payment of taxes on property. The State Department points out that exemptions are not applicable to other religious groups.
The State Department draws attention to a ruling by the Constitutional Court of Georgia in 2018 declaring GOC’s exclusive privileges unconstitutional and mandating legislative change that “would either abolish the privileges or grant them to all religious organizations.” The report mentions that the Parliament failed to meet the deadline for amending the law by the end of the year.
Worries of Muslim Community
The report features concerns raised by Georgia’s Muslim community that “the government continued to influence the state-funded Administration of Muslims of All Georgia,” an umbrella organization of both Shia and Ethnic Muslims.
The State Department cites the PDO’s Tolerance Center that “non-GOC religious organizations continued to face government resistance when attempting to obtain construction permits for houses of worship” – highlighting local authorities’ refusal to allow construction of a mosque in Batumi.
State of Religious Freedom in Occupied Regions
The report casts a light on the state of religious freedom in Russian-occupied territories of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali Region/South Ossetia. Both Sokhumi and Tskhinvali continue to ban the Jehovah’s Witnesses, it says.
The State Department noted that representatives of the GOC were unable to travel to or conduct services in Abkhazia – “including in the majority-ethnic Georgian Gali District.”
According to the report, the Georgian government maintains that Abkhaz authorities damaged historical Orthodox religious buildings in a bid to “erase Georgian cultural heritage.”
While Tskhinvali permitted the GOC to hold services in some districts – including majority-ethnic Georgian Akhalgori – residents were impeded from visiting a number of churches and cemeteries within the region located near the dividing line due to the “threat of detention by Russian guards” – notes the State Department.