Views of Political Parties on Freedom of Religion in Georgia

Throughout September 14-21, few weeks before the 2016 parliamentary elections in Georgia Tolerance and Diversity Institute (TDI) organized five separate round table meetings between religious organizations and main political parties participating in the elections: Georgian Dream (Tamar Chugoshvili, Sopho Katsarava), United National Movement (Giorgi Tugushi, Sergo Ratiani, Sergi Kapanadze,), Free Democrats (Irakli Alasania, Mikheil Avakiani, Beniamin Kasimov), Republican Party of Georgia (Tamar Kordzaia and David Zurabishvili), Paata Burchuladze – State for People/ New Political Centre Girchi (Iago Khvichia, Toresa Mossy, Vakhtang Megrelishvili).

Meetings were organized with the support of USAID’s "Promoting Integration, Tolerance and Awareness Program [PITA], implemented by UNAG.

Responses of the political parties on main problems faced by religious minorities in Georgia expressed at the pre-election meetings

 

The State’s Response to Crimes

One of the main problems that religious organizations face in Georgia is an increasing number of offences/crimes committed on the grounds of religious intolerance and ineffective investigation. In many cases, the investigation is not commenced with respective provisions of criminal code reflecting the motive of religious hatred, investigation process is protracted in time or is not completed at all. What is the position of the party on causes of the problem and how does the party view the solution of the above-mentioned issues?

Georgian Dream

Party representatives did not make any assessment on this matter. They declared that they wanted to get information from religious organizations about the problems they encounter. Party representatives highlighted the importance of cooperation and pointed out that they are open for future dialogue.

United National Movement

Party criticized ineffective investigation of crimes committed on the grounds of religious intolerance. According to the party representatives, one of the main problems is the absence of the political will. The law is not enforced regarding those crimes. For example, despite the amendments to the Criminal Code of Georgia, the article 53 determinesthat the violence committed on the grounds of religious and other motives is an aggravating circumstance, this article has never been used by the court. Party pointed out, that in case of their tenure, hate crimes will be severely punished. Applying the criminal law sanctions is not the only way to eliminate the violence, however it is necessary on certain stages. The party representatives provided an example, when the group of extremists breaking into Kavkasia TV station in 2010 were punished for their action (later, they were released due to the status of political prisoners by the current government), the number of instances of violence significantly decreased afterwards. Moreover, it is necessary to implement recommendations proposed by ECRI and hence, to create special unit in the Ministry of Internal Affairs that will be responsible for prevention and investigation of hate crimes, and will be composed with competent policemen.

Free Democrats

Party pointed out that they do not have enough information on this matter.

Republican Party

Party representatives pointed out that the practice of the European Court and the legislation of Georgia requires from public institutions to be neutral and their activities should not create a perception that a certain individual was assessed or approached based on his or her religious belonging. This is a standard for secular state.

Burchuladze Block / Girchi

According to the party, Georgian Law on Public Service stipulates that all public servants are equal before the law, which includes equality despite religious belonging or faith. As party says, none of political parties would be able to prove the opposite of the necessity of protecting religious neutrality in public service.

The State Agency for Religious Issues

How does the party assess establishment and work of the State Agency for Religious Issues?

Georgian Dream

Party representatives positively assessed establishment of the the State Agency for Religious Issues and provided example of transferring the properties to religious organizations with the right of ownership [note: not so called disputable houses of worship, but the buildings already being under their usage] as a positive sign of the Agency's activities. According to the party, one of the motives for establishment of the Agency was to change a form of State's communication with religious organizations since before that, the State used to communicate with religious organizations through security services. The Party representatives noted, that the government’s Human Rights Action Plan determines the activities to be implemented by the Agency in details and they plan a close cooperation in this direction. If religious organizations have critical opinions towards the activities of the Agency, they would discuss this issue in future with them, however, currently they have no answer whether the function of the Agency should change, how it may pursue its work and whether the issue of its abolishment may arise. [Note: representatives of religious organizations strongly criticized the establishment of the Agency and its work.]

United National Movement

According to the party representatives, the State Agency for Religious Issues shall be abolished since this body is additional bureaucratic structure that is not focused on the protection of religious freedom in Georgia. Party believes that the Agency does not support engagement of religious minorities in the social life and provides no assistance for them to improve relations with the authorities. Party negatively assessed the Agency's strategy of religious policy of the State, the draft document which was finally removed due to the criticism of international and local organizations. According to the party, dialogue between the State and religious organizations could be ensured through much more effective platforms. One of them is the Council of Religions under the auspices of the Public Defender.

Free Democrats

Party mentioned that it has no information about the activities of the Agency and therefore, refrained from making assessments. However, their general position is that such structures always will be used by the State for strengthening its influence.

Republican Party

Party noted that if the parish has a need to build a house of worship, they should be given relevant permission. As to the specific facts of creating barriers for constructing the houses of worship, party representatives invoked already existing precedent in court when the Catholic Church won the lawsuit on discrimination issue. The party representatives noted that creating such precedents are very important.

Burchuladze Block / Girchi

According to the party, the State should not issue a construction permit for any building, including houses of worship. Private owners shall agree upon the transfer or sale of property, also, what kind of building is permitted to be constructed. Otherwise, in the process of issuing building permits by local government, the problem of partial treatment will always arise.

Persecution of Muslims

What is the Party’s assessment on persecution of Muslims in different regions of Georgia during the last years, reasons causing such occurrences and how do they see the ways of fighting Islamophobia?

Georgian Dream

There have been several questions asked regarding this problem, however, the party representatives did not talk about the facts of Muslims' persecution, they did not criticize the State policy in this regard either. The party generally mentioned that the State's approach should be protection of human rights and such occurrences should be prevented.

United National Movement

According to the party representatives, persecution of Muslims in the recent years became systematic and main reason for that is an ineffective investigation of crimes committed on the grounds of religious intolerance. Also, the violence was encouraged by xenophobic statements of the high-ranking officials. As an example of gross violation of Muslims' rights, the party representatives mentioned dismantling the Minaret in the village Chela and nailing a pig's head on the door of the boarding school in Kobuleti. They assessed those facts as "an outmost insult of our culture." According to the party, the State's response to such crimes should be strict.

Free Democrats

NOTE: This issue was not raised during the meeting. The question was sent to the party but it remained unanswered.

Republican Party

The question was raised but the party did not focus particularly on persecution of Muslims. They pointed out, that in general, impartial investigation and determining the discrimination is problematic.

Burchuladze Block / Girchi

The party did not respond to the question about persecution of Muslims.

Construction of a New Mosque in Batumi

What is the party's position about the obstacles created by the State to the Muslim community regarding construction of a new Mosque in Batumi?

Georgian Dream

Party representatives had no answer to this question. They refused to articulate their personal opinions as well.

United National Movement

The State shall not create obstacles for none of religious organizations, including the Muslim community, to build houses of worship at any place where there is a need for construction.

Free Democrats

Party has no information regarding the problems related to building a new Mosque. However, they believe that if there is a need in local community to build a new Mosque, the State should allocate the land plot and assist in construction of a house of worship.

Republican Party

According to the party representatives, they have no information regarding the need of building a new Mosque and the barriers created by the State. However, if local community requests building a new mosque, the State should satisfy this need.

Burchuladze Block / Girchi

According to the party, government should not transfer a land for free to any religious organization. At the same time, function of the building shall not become an obstacle for building process for anybody. Regarding the construction of a mosque in Batumi, the representatives of the party said that municipalities make decisions on issuance of construction permits in the regions of Georgia. The municipalities are elected by the citizens, therefore, representatives of religious minorities should be politically active so that the government is afraid of losing their votes. Afterwards, such kind of problems are less likely to occur.

State Funding of Religious Organizations

What is the party's position on the State’s policy and practice of funding religious organizations?

Georgian Dream

Party representatives said the party does not have a position on this matter. They refused to articulate their personal opinions as well.

United National Movement

According to the party, religious organizations shall not be receiving funding from the state budget. Funding system shall be built only upon the principle of restitution.

Free Democrats

State funding shall be terminated for all religious organizations. They shall be functioning based on the contributions of their parish. This idea cannot be implemented shortly, but eventually should be realized. According to the party, the Georgian Orthodox Church nowadays is a structure reproducing political power. The State is giving public money to the religious institution that uses the funds for its own influence.

Republican Party

The State shall not be funding religious organizations. Current practice of the state funding formally is a compensation, however, in reality, it is a direct funding in exchange of getting support of the influential institution.

Burchuladze Block / Girchi

Party considers, that the State should quit funding religious organizations. As an alternative, voluntary tax system can be established.

Compensation of the Damages Inflicted during the Soviet Period

What is the party's position as to the compensation of damages inflicted on religious organizations during the Soviet times?

Georgian Dream

Party representatives noted that the party has no determined position on this matter. They refused to articulate their personal opinions as well.

United National Movement

Party states that damages were inflicted on religious organizations during the Soviet times and the State is obliged to elaborate a plan for the compensation. Party believes that creating hierarchy among religious organizations and marking them as traditional and non-traditional organizations are not acceptable. If the funds are allocated to four religious organizations, then other religious communities shall also be compensated for the suffered damages. Party plans to work in this direction.

Free Democrats

According to the party, an important step was taken when the government allocated funds to four religious organizations. It could be considered as a step forward towards eliminating inequality.

Republican Party

According to the party, the State shall calculate amount of compensation and determine payment terms. Damage was inflicted not only on the Orthodox Church, but also other religious organizations. Therefore, the damage shall be calculated for everyone and compensated on equal basis.

Burchuladze Block / Girchi

According to the party, the damages inflicted by the Soviet Union on certain religious organizations are not calculated. Nobody has ever tried to do that. Not only religious communities, but citizens of Georgia on the whole, experienced damages at the time. Hence, without taking into consideration all these facts, speaking about compensation is not convincing and takes a form of political populism.

Return of the Confiscated Property

What is the party's position as to the return of the property taken from religious organizations during the Soviet times (including, so called, ‘disputable houses of worship’)? Most of the so called disputed property is under the State’s ownership. However, the Catholic Church's disputed houses of worship are currently owned by the Georgian Orthodox Church.

Georgian Dream

Party did not express its position on this matter. They refused to articulate their personal opinions as well.

United National Movement

Party representatives think that the issue of the confiscated and disputed properties shall be resolved. Religious organizations shall receive the taken property back. At the initial stage, the property which is not disputed should be fully returned; the status of the property which is disputed among particular religious groups and owners should be timely defined. Generally, the State shall have a strict position on this issue or play a role of an arbitrator.

Free Democrats

Party is not duly aware of the property restitution issue. It is within the party's future plans to ensure protection and conservation of all cultural and historical buildings/objects by the State.

Republican Party

Party believes that this issue shall be discussed in the legal framework. Property related disputes among religious organizations shall be solved by the court. These cases should be assessed impartially and it requires political will.

Burchuladze Block / Girchi

According to the party, compensation of damages and restitution of the property confiscated during the Soviet times may not be possible for particular reasons. In some cases, it is impossible or very difficult to find legal successors or define legal connections between entities. Party representatives regard that above-mentioned issue should be resolved not by the government or any other state commission, but the court should deal with the issue of restitution of disputed houses of worship. The party does not know how the problem of restitution of historically Catholic churches that are already under the ownership of the Georgian Orthodox Church, can be resolved. As for the possible influence of Georgian Orthodox Church on the court decision because of the State's preferential approach to the dominant group, according to the party, judiciary system should become stronger and more independent.

Religious Neutrality at Public Schools

How does the party assess the problems related to ensuring religious neutrality at public schools?

Georgian Dream

According to the party representatives, the reform of education system is one among their top priorities. Law of Georgia on General Education shall be observed in educational institutions and required monitoring mechanisms shall be present that would identify violations of the law and ensure due reaction. Party representatives noted, that they wish to meet the Minister of Education and Science of Georgia and talk about possible solutions in the nearest future.

United National Movement

According to the party, a public school shall be religiously neutral area. Law of Georgia on General Education shall be strictly enforced and discrimination of the students having different religious beliefs or opinions shall be prohibited. Party noted, that this problem should be resolved through two main ways: 1. an effective response to the facts of discrimination and violations religious neutrality (by application of the monitoring mechanisms); 2.training of teachers. However, party believes that for implementation of relevant reforms, first of all, there is a need for the political will.

Free Democrats

NOTE: This issue was not raised during the meeting. The question was sent to the party but it remained unanswered.

Republican Party

Party acknowledges that there is a problem of religious indoctrination at public schools and the worshiping corners are set up regularly. Party believes that the Church should not intervene into the general education system and the school environment should be secular. Party did not discuss specific mechanisms for solving the problem.

Burchuladze Block / Girchi

According to the party, violation of religious neutrality at public schools is an important issue and privatization in the system of education is the best option for solving this problem - quantity of public schools should drastically decrease. Parents should choose the schools where they want to send their children, considering the values that are taught there. Otherwise, It is impossible to solve the problem of indoctrination and proselytism.

Religious Neutrality in Public Service

How does the party assess the problems related to protection of religious neutrality at public institutions?

Georgian Dream

According to the party, they will put a particular emphasis on this issue. They plan to work on improving education and awareness in this direction; amendments to the existing ethical rules for public servants; preparation of special handbooks as well as training of the public servants. The party representatives emphasized the positive role of the State Agency for Religious Issues in the process of training of public servants.

United National Movement

According to the party, religious neutrality shall be observed at public institutions and generally this principle should be upheld by public servants. As they pointed put, very often religious symbols are displayed at public institutions; also during the last years public servants were involved in creating obstacles for religious minorities to building their houses of worship. Moreover, local government officials, especially in regions, were involved in conflicts against religious minorities, where they supported the side of the dominant group. There are cases, when they reveal their bias through their xenophobic statements.

Free Democrats

Party believes that there is a problem of observing religious neutrality in the public service, which is caused due to the lack of education in this field and ineffective implementation of the public service reform. There is a need for raising awareness of public servants about religious freedom and multiculturalism.

Republican Party

Party representatives pointed out that the practice of the European Court and the legislation of Georgia requires from public institutions to be neutral and their activities should not create a perception that a certain individual was assessed or approached based on his or her religious belonging. This is a standard for secular state.

Burchuladze Block / Girchi

According to the party, Georgian Law on Public Service stipulates that all public servants are equal before the law, which includes equality despite religious belonging or faith. As party says, none of political parties would be able to prove the opposite of the necessity of protecting religious neutrality in public service.

Construction of Houses of Worship

How does the party assess the facts of creating barriers by central and/or local government to religious organizations willing to build houses of worship and how does the party see the solutions? (Local governments are responsible to issue building permits).

Georgian Dream

Party did not express its position on this issue.

United National Movement

According to the party representatives, the State shall not create any obstacle to any religious community while building houses of worship.

Free Democrats

NOTE: This issue was not raised during the meeting. The question was sent to the party but it remained unanswered.

Republican Party

Party noted that if the parish has a need to build a house of worship, they should be given relevant permission. As to the specific facts of creating barriers for constructing the houses of worship, party representatives invoked already existing precedent in court when the Catholic Church won the lawsuit on discrimination issue since they had not been allowed to build a church, while the Orthodox Church never faces such obstacles. The party representatives noted that creating such precedents are very important. (note: comment has been edited by the party after the meeting).

Burchuladze Block / Girchi

According to the party, the State should not issue a construction permit for any building, including houses of worship. Private owners shall agree upon the transfer or sale of property, also, what kind of building is permitted to be constructed. Otherwise, in the process of issuing building permits by local government, the problem of partial treatment will always arise.