We consider the recent approach of the government of Georgia to the fundamental right of freedom of religion and belief to be extremely alarming and disturbing. Authorities are increasingly violating religious freedom, disregarding the principle of equality, and deepening discrimination between religious groups.
This year, with the pandemic storming, the religious policy of the State, that violates the principles of secularity and equality, the rights of non-dominant religious groups and demonstrates discriminatory attitudes towards citizens of a different faith, revealed itself more vividly.
Vice Prime Minister Maia Tskitishvili once again pointed out that the State only protects freedom of religion and belief of the religious majority. As it is known, an exception to the restrictions imposed to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus, that is to celebrate Christmas, was allowed by the state only for the Orthodox Church. On November 27, the Vice Prime Minister clarified that the reason for the exception is the fact that the “majority of our population is Orthodox”.
Tskitishvili once again spoke about this issue at the briefing of the Coordination Council of the Government on December 22 and noted that the exception will be allowed only to the Orthodox citizens because “the entirety of Georgia does not celebrate Catholic Christmas massively and we do not, therefore, have holidays. So, let us not create a problem where there is none. We protect every right of our citizens. They have the right to freedom of religion, and they will be able to visit their church without restriction, be it Catholic Christmas or Gregorian.”
The state has not considered the possibility of celebrating a religious holiday for citizens of other religions, including 25 December, when the overwhelming majority of the Christian world celebrates Christmas. According to Tskitishvili, if members of different religious groups wish to go to church on Christmas, they should “send a list of their parish to our services, who will then provide one-time passes for these people”. This call directly demonstrates the State’s attempt to interfere with the autonomy of religious organizations, to gather and process the personal data of its members. According to the legislation, information related to a person’s religious belonging is the data of a special category. Such a decision forces people to reveal their religious affiliation. This way the State will, without any legitimate reason, gain access to information about clergymen and members of religious organizations, their numbers, residence, and other important personal data, which may be misused to control and intimidate individuals and groups.
Apart from the fact that the government’s decision restricts people of different faiths from celebrating the holiday and puts them in an unequal position, government officials do not have even basic knowledge of religious diversity and the related terminology. The terms “Gregorian Christmas” and “Catholic Christmas” mentioned by the Vice Prime Minister are incorrect. Apart from the Catholic church, the Protestant Churches and the vast majority of Orthodox Autocephalous Churches around the world also celebrate Christmas on 25 December. It is similarly wrong to use the term “Gregorian” in reference to the Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church.
The Vice Prime Minister’s statements were preceded by the 14 December statements of the Prime Minister concerning the Easter celebration. According to Giorgi Gakharia, Georgia is an “Orthodox state”. The head of government used this argument to justify the privileges of the Orthodox Church in light of the existing restrictions. By acknowledging the confessional nature of the state, he grossly disregarded the separation of state and religion recognized by the Constitution of Georgia, recognizing the superiority of one religion, including the supremacy of religious institution over the state institutions.
The state of freedom of religion and belief in Georgia has sharply worsened in recent years. Non-dominant religious groups face many systemic problems that the government does not have the will to solve. Often these obstacles are artificially created by the government. Non-dominant religious organizations are unable to build new religious buildings and are unable to reclaim historic property confiscated during the Soviet era. The legislation is discriminatory and grants certain rights and privileges only to the Orthodox Church. The environment in public schools is likewise discriminatory and non-secular. The State Agency for Religious Issues under the Prime Minister’s office, which was established in 2014 is the face of the State’s religious policy. Rather than protecting religious freedom and equality, the Agency systematically interferes in the autonomy of non-dominant religious groups, creates artificial obstacles, and instead of protecting rights, focuses on “security”. In recent years we have seen many legislative initiatives that clearly demonstrate the governments’ attempt to restrict freedom of confession and religion.
If up until now the discriminatory and non-secular approach of the state was more or less obscured, the recent statements and actions of the government show that it is now openly and purposefully violates the freedom of religion, the rule of law, and the State-church separation.
We believe that the religious policy of the state has become alarming and it may be a precondition for more rigid and repressive actions against religious groups. The degree of the protection of freedom of religion and belief is one of the indicators of the democratic development of the country. There is no democratic state where this fundamental right is not protected. Differential treatment of religious groups and interference with their autonomy is more typical of authoritarian states.
We call on the Georgian authorities:
To adhere to the principles of separation of religion and State and principles of equality;
To stop discriminatory policies against religious organizations and interference with their autonomy;
To enable citizens to practice the right to freedom of religion and belief without hindrance, regardless of their confessional affiliations;
To abolish the agency implementing this vicious practice – State Agency for Religious Issues;
We call on the oppositional political parties:
To focus on the state of religious freedom and equality policy in Georgia in their political agenda and during the meetings with Georgia’s international partners;