Inter-Agency Commission to study religious issues of religious organizations was created by the Government of Georgia on November 29, 2013 (Decree # 305).
According to the charter, deputy ministers of various ministries are members of the Commission with voting right. Chairperson of the Commission is the State Minister for Reintegration Issues. With the Commission’s decision members of the parliament may also become members. The chairperson can invite representatives of non-governmental and international organizations, also respective experts to participate in the work of the Commission without the voting right.
Several objectives of the Commission are listed in the charter. We consider that these objectives are unclear, ambiguous and leave space for multiple interpretations. Namely:
1. Objective: Analysis of legal documents related to religious organizations
There are several provisions in Georgian legislation creating unequal conditions for religious minorities in comparison with the dominant religious group. Georgian government must take relevant measures to amend discriminatory norms.
Consequently, it is important to clarify if the above objective of the Commission aims at creating equal legal environment for religious minorities and exclude the risk of setting up additional legislative barriers.
2. Objective: Elaboration of legislative provisions regulating construction of religious buildings
In our opinion there is no need for adoption of specific legislation regulating the construction of religious buildings; hence, general regulations of construction must apply in such cases.
At the same time, there is a risk that setting up additional regulations will complicate existing procedures for constructing religious buildings.
Sadly, for number of years religious minorities have been facing various difficulties related to construction of religious buildings. The main problem in this regard is discriminative attitude trough creating various bureaucratic barriers. Consequently, the only goal of the Commission in this direction must be work for elimination of the existing discriminatory practices.
3. Objective: Study issues related to funding of religious organizations
State funding of religious organizations is one of the most problematic topics. Patriarchate of the Georgian Orthodox Church gets funding from the state budget and various state funds each year; while other religious organizations are not financially supported by the government.
Existing discriminatory practice of funding must be eliminated and interests of majority and minority groups have to be equally taken into consideration. It is desirable that the funding type of religious organizations be developed with participation of religious communities.
At the same time, TDI considers that religious organizations, neither majority nor minority must be funded by the state. In such case we will avoid discrimination and the risk of intervention into religious domain by the state.
Besides, it is absolutely unacceptable if this objective of the Commission aims to control incomes and financial activities of religious organizations.
4. Objective: Study property issues of religious organizations
Several religious communities (Armenian Apostolic Church; Catholic Church, Muslim community, Evangelical-Lutheran Church, Jewish community) for many years have been requesting restitution of religious building confiscated during the Soviet period. This remains the most problematic issue faced by religious communities in Georgia.
The goal of the above objective must be restitution of this property to its historic owner rather than setting up restrictions on ownership or purchase of property.
5. Objective: Study issues related to public worship or public religious procession
The need for formulating this objective in the charter and goal of Commission’s work in this direction is ambiguous. Public religious procession is guaranteed by the constitutional principle of freedom of religion, also freedom of assembly and expression. However this paragraph can be interpreted as setting restrictions on public worships and religious processions by the state.
6. Objective: Study educational activities of religious organizations
The paragraph about education, like all other objectives of the Commission, leaves space for multiple interpretations. It is not clear what kind of educational activities are planned to study; whether they are going to study the work of private religious schools or elaborate any general standards for them and interfere with their content.
On the other hand, the above objective gives no reason to think that the Commission will work on one of the most problematic spheres in Georgia - protection of freedom of religion at public schools. Despite the fact that discrimination, proselytism, indoctrination and exhibition of religious symbols are prohibited by the law on general education, these are very common practices at public schools.
Accordingly, we think that the above charter of Inter-agency Commission and its objectives contain the risks of restriction of religious freedom and violation of secular principles.
Besides, making such decisions exclusively, without having consultations with religious minorities, may harm the principle of neutrality of the state towards religious organizations.
Stemming from the above-mentioned, TDI calls on the Government of Georgia to specify mandate and objectives of Inter-Agency Commission.