Georgia among signatories of the Statement against blasphemy laws
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hosted the second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington on July 16-18, 2019. The event united civil society and religious leaders and government delegates from more than 100 countries. The Ministerial reaffirmed international commitments to promote religious freedom for all and focus on concrete outcomes that produce durable, positive change.
On 18 July senior government and international organization representatives participated in plenary sessions focused on: identifying global challenges to religious freedom; developing innovative responses to persecution on the basis of religion; and sharing new commitments to protect religious freedom for all. Minister of Foreign Affairs of Georgia David Zalkaniani also participated in the session. The government delegates signed joint statements one of which is against blasphemy and apostasy laws. Georgia is among the signatories of the statement.
Statement on Blasphemy and Apostasy Laws
(Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, July 18, 2019, Washington D.C.)
As representatives of the international community, we stand together in support of the interconnected freedoms of thought, conscience, religion or belief, and expression. We stand in firm opposition to laws that, inconsistent with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, impede the freedom of individuals to choose a faith, practice a faith, change their religion, not have a religion, tell others about their beliefs and practices, or openly debate and discuss aspects of faith or belief.
Numerous countries maintain laws criminalizing blasphemy, apostasy, or speech that might “defame” or “insult” religious sentiments. Such laws are often used as a pretext to justify vigilantism or mob violence in the name of religion, or as a pretext to pursue retribution related to personal grievances. We see governments using such laws to wrongfully imprison and punish individuals whose views on matters of religion or belief may differ from official narratives or the views of majority populations.
We call on governments that utilize these laws to free any individuals imprisoned on such grounds, and to repeal blasphemy, apostasy, and other laws that impede the exercise of freedom of expression and religion or belief, in a manner inconsistent with international law. We remain committed to working with partners to combat problems like sectarianism, discrimination, and violence based on religious intolerance in ways that respect fundamental freedoms, including freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief and freedom of expression.
Co-Signatories: Albania, Armenia, Australia, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Denmark, Estonia, Georgia, Israel, Italy, Japan, Kosovo, Latvia, Lithuania, Marshall Islands, Moldova, North Macedonia, Paraguay, Poland, Portugal, Serbia, Slovakia, Ukraine, United Kingdom, United States of America
Overview of the initiatives on imposing liability for “insulting religious feelings” in Georgia
The risk to restrict freedom of speech and expression has been permanently emerging during the last few years in Georgia. Among them, many initiatives are about such perilous and unforeseeable legislation like liability for “blasphemy” and “insult of religious feelings”. Authors of these initiatives are government and parliamentarians. Furthermore, the Georgian Orthodox Church has been demanding legislation for ‘insulting religious feelings’. However the member religious organizations of the Council of Religions under the auspices of the Ombudsman of Georgia and human rights organizations always criticize and oppose such intentions of the state and speak about the risk associated with limitation of freedom of expression and laws on the “insult of religious feelings”.
Despite the fact that the Georgian Constitution and legislation guarantee high standard of freedom of expression, a number of incidents of violence and aggression based on ‘insulting religious feelings’ has happened in Georgia during the last years. Clergy of the Georgian Orthodox Church and various extremist groups of the society have opposed freedom of speech, thought and expression, among them in media and art. For example:
- In 2015, a painting entitled The Virgin with a Toy Pistol by artist Lia Ukleba was exhibited at Ilia State University in Tbilisi. Ukleba became victim of continuous critic, threats and assaults;
- In 2016, three young men attacked Levan Sutidze, author and presenter of the programme Talks on Religion, along with three colleagues at a Tbilisi restaurant. The main motive of the perpetrators was, that the journalists are "insulting the Georgian Orthodox Church" and influencing public opinion;
- In 2019 the extremist group Georgian March attacked the journalist Giorgi Gabunia as they felt insulted by Gabunia’s TV speech about the Christ.
In 2013 the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Georgia proposed the bill that sought to make “insult of religious feelings” administrative offense. According to the draft law the administrative liability had to be imposed for “public expression of hatred against religious sanctity, religious organization, clergy or believers, or any other disrespectful act aimed to insult the feelings of religious believers”. The initiative was criticized by the  civil society organizations and the Council of Religions under the Ombudsman of Georgia. Following the protest, the proposed law was dropped.
In 2015 MP Soso Jachvliani from the ruling Georgian Dream party proposed the draft law to add a new article to the Code of Administrative Offences according to which "Public expression of hatred for holy places, religious organisations, clergy and believers and/or the use of material aiming to insult the feelings of religious believers – to incur a penalty of 300 Lari and 600 Lari if repeated”. Author of the bill was Zviad Tomaradze of Demographic Society XXI.
On 2 February 2016 the Parliament’s Human Rights Committee approved the draft law on the first reading. The explanatory note of the bill mentioned: “It is already several years that with the argument of freedom of speech and expression there are direct or concealed insults against the Georgian Orthodox Church, also against various traditional religions existing in the country. Some ambiguous groups and individuals intentionally insult religious sanctities, buildings and symbols. In social networks there are dozens of pages with the direct intention of profanity and insult of the Georgian Orthodox Church and its hierarchs”.
Human rights organizations criticized the draft law and called on the parliament not to adopt the law that restricts freedom of expression and, by doing so, not to contribute to suppression of open and free public debates.
Afterwards, the initiator of the amendments Soso Jachvliani withdrew the draft law with the argument there was a need to further refine it.
On 26 March 2018, MP, member of the political party Alliance of Patriots of Georgia, Emzar Kvitsiani submitted a legislative proposal to the Parliament of Georgia, which envisaged criminal liability for insulting religious feelings. The bill was prepared by Zviad Tomaradze, the head of Demographic Society XXI.
The bill provided for adding the article to the Criminal Code, which envisaged punishment for “publicly expressing hatred towards religious symbols, a religious organization, clerics, and a believer and/or publishing or showing materials that aimed to insult the feelings of believers” as well as for “desecrating religious buildings and other religious symbols, making any inscriptions on them, or damaging.” The draft law introduced a fine and deprivation of liberty as forms of punishment for committing the mentioned acts.
The explanatory note to the bill directly stated that its adoption was spurred by frequent cases of insults towards the Georgian Orthodox Church as well as to other traditional religions in the country. On April 24, at the hearing of Human Rights and Civil Integration Committee, MP Emzar Kvitsiani stated that in the recent period, Catholicos Patriarch of Georgia was frequently insulted on Facebook. “Insults of religious feelings are frequent in our country, and for some reason, they are particularly frequent against Orthodox Christians; we are being targeted … they are insulting our Patriarch, which we should not accept.”
The bill was heavily criticized by human rights NGOs and members of Council of Religions under the Public Defender of Georgia. They called on Parliament not to allow imposing sanctions for insulting religious feelings.
It was mentioned in the statement of Council of Religions signed by 19 religious organizations: “We believe that religious organizations must oppose intolerance and offence with teaching, educational work and prudent counsel. Solving the problem by repressive tools will further aggravate violence and intolerance.”
The chair of Parliament’s Human Rights and Civil Integration Committee, Sophio Kiladze welcomed the bill “at the level of principles,” but added that it would not be voted that day, citing the need for further discussions and setting up a working group.
 Statement on Blasphemy and Apostasy Laws https://www.state.gov/statement-on-blasphemy-and-apostasy-laws/
 Georgian Orthodox Church Calls for Limits to Freedom of Expression https://old.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=27978
Archpriest Mikael Botkoveli stated, “We will support the draft law, according to which, insulting the religious feelings is becoming a punishable offence…” https://1tv.ge/en/news/patriarchate-support-draft-law-punishment-insulting-religious-feelings/
GOC Patriarchate “We also call on the government to take effective and quick steps to create legal mechanisms to protect society and prevent possible uncontrolled processes in the country,” http://georgiatoday.ge/news/10454/Georgian-Patriarchate-Accuses-Rustavi-2-TV-of-Blasphemy
 See also: GEORGIA: Proposed insulting religious feelings law withdrawn – for now, Forum 18, 2016 https://bit.ly/2T7kLLe
 The Patriarchy of Georgia stated that a painting of a suicidal Virgin Mary is blasphemy and propagates suicide. http://georgiatoday.ge/news/1764/Suicidal-Saint-Stirs-Controversy
 According to journalists, their professional activities and criticism of the Orthodox Church were named as the motive for the assault. shorturl.at/ikvL7
 Radical move of Patriarchate and boycott to "Rustavi 2" - announcement was preceded by cursing of Giorgi Gabunia by Rev. Job http://www.rustavi2.ge/en/news/104810