TDI on Financing the Religious Organizations

According to the Government Resolution of 27 January, 2014, the Government of Georgia decided to compensate material and moral damages inflicted in the Soviet times not only to the Patriarchate of the Orthodox Church of Georgia, but also to 4 other religious organizations.

Moreover, it has become known, that it will be part of the functions of the Legal Entity of Public Law – State Agency on Issues of Religion in the future. The announcement on the formation of the State Agency was made by the Minister of Georgia for Reconciliation and Civil Equality, Paata Zakareishvili on the 7th of February.

It is noteworthy that these decisions were preceded by formation of the Inter-agency Commission to Study Some Issues related to the Religious Organizations.

These steps made by the Government in this field recently are vexing and cause multiple questions. The crucial questions are as follows:

  • What is the reason leading the Government to make the decisions of fundamental importance summarily, in the force majeure manner;
  • Why are the decisions taken “behind closed doors”, by one actor, without consultations with wide range of religious organizations, the Public Defender, non-governmental organizations defending the rights of religious minorities?
  • Are these decisions agreed with the Patriarchate of the Orthodox Church of Georgia, which stands out with its proclaimed intolerance towards other religious organizations except the four confessions, listed in the Resolution?
  • In view of the one-sided nature and substantive vagueness of the decision, it leads to the legitimate questions: What is the actual rationale and final goal of the Government in respect with the religious minorities? Is this the way for the State to control and restrain the religious organizations?
  • Is aspiration of the Government to conceal the problems challenging the Muslims in Georgia and to subdue the Muslim community, which is openly voiced by the representatives of the various authoritative Muslim organizations one of the main reasons of this decision?

Tolerance and Diversity Institute (TDI) already expressed its opinion in respect with the Inter-Agency Governmental Commission. The present statement is directed specifically at the issue of funding. It can be stated unequivocally, that due to the number of fundamental flaws, financing of the four religious organizations in the manner chosen by the Government is unfair, uncertain and discriminatory.

1. In Article 1 of the Resolution, the Government of Georgia recognizes that the Soviet Totalitarian Regime in Georgia damaged not only the Apostolic Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Georgia, but also other religious organizations. Therefore, the damages will be partially compensated to the religious organizations of “Islamic, Judean, Roman-Catholic and Armenian Apostolic Confessions” which were registered as legal entities of public law prior to 27 January, 2014. However, it is not clear, which criteria or which historical data were used for selection of these four confessions only, while Yazidi, Lutheran, Pentecostal (Christians of the Testament Faith), Jehovah’s Witnesses, Krishnaites and other religious groups were subjected to the analogous persecution in the Soviet Union. It is manifestly unfair treatment of the other religious organizations, to circumscribe the list of beneficiaries with the four confessions, which would further exacerbate the discrimination, promote the evil practice of the categorization of religions and would further marginalize the major part of the minorities, as in this case, the four religious groups, chosen by the State are perceived as privileged organizations. Such approach violates the principle of equality and it is not clear what objective and reasonable justification the Government can offer in this respect.

2. The rule for identification of victims of Soviet regime set out in the Resolution is also problematic. Pursuant to Article 2(2) of the Resolution, the religious organizations registered in Georgia have no legal ties to the organizations that were damaged during the Soviet regime. In view of this, the Government of Georgia intends to compensate damages to the religious organizations, registered as Legal Entities of Public Law, which profess one of the above-listed four confessions, “and/or it has confessional heritage from the damaged organization.” It is clear that contemporary religious organizations cannot have any legal ties to the religious organizations present during Soviet Union: it was only three years ago, that they were legally entitled to register as legal entities of public law. However, the crucial fact is that the Resolution deals with compensation of damages and legal rule of compensation damages requires identification physical or legal person, or their group, that were injured. According to the Resolution, compensation of damages will be granted to any religious organization, which professes the same religious doctrine, as the religious organization that was damaged during the Soviet regime, even if it had no historical ties to the damaged religious organization at all. The prospective beneficiaries are not indeed required to prove any institutional historical ties to the damaged religious organizations or communities. If what the Government aspires to achieve is truly compensation of damages, it would be reasonable to set out criteria, to identify the historical and institutional successor of the damaged religious organization.

3. It is absurd from the legal standpoint, that this form of providing funding to the religious organizations by the state is called “compensation of damages”. Compensation of “material and moral damages” raises certain expectations related to the compensation so damages in general. Compensation of damages shall aim to redress the injury inflicted upon legally protected interest of a specific person; Redress may be restitution, if that is still possible or compensation. Therefore, it is necessary to identify specific person or persons, which were injured by the specific historical event or events and which directly caused the damages; finally it is necessary to calculate the amount of damages. The Government Resolution discussed here ignores all of the above-mentioned elements. The Government did not try to find out which religious organizations suffered the injury during Soviet Regime and instead of this, it arbitrarily selected four religious confessions – thus the group of victims was defined by ignoring the historical criteria.

4. It is also vague, what amount and what type of damages will be compensated from the state budget. It is stated in the Resolution, that “it is unknown… what the exact amount of damages is and thus the compensation of damages is symbolic… through the annual allocation of money from the state budget.” Compensation of damages for an indefinite period contradicts the common understanding of compensation of damages. In spite of the stated aspiration in the Resolution to compensate the damages inflicted during the Soviet Regime, it is evident from the analysis of its content that in fact, it provides the rule of annual financing of the four religious confessions, which substantially has nothing in common with the compensation of damages. The most adequate way of compensation of damages would be to return the places of worship by the state to the representatives of all four confessions, that were deprived during the Soviet period and ownership rights on which are under dispute up to this day.

5. It is also highly problematic, that the Government unanimously decided to provide funding to certain religious organizations, while there is more democratic rule of financing practiced in the European countries – financing through taxation. In this model of financing, religious organizations are financed by the citizens, who fill in the special part of their taxation forms, and define the purpose of paying the tax. Thus the role of government in financing of religious organizations is minimized and the interest of all tax-payers to finance their religious organizations, atheist or other groups, if they wish so, is respected. This regime of financing excludes the possibility, that the government, due to financial support will exert illegal control and influence on the religious organizations. In contrast to this, the Resolution of the Government of Georgia presents the example of arbitrary decision-making, which may lead to the disposal of the budget or reserve resources through application of vague and non-transparent criteria.

6. Another flaw in the Resolution of the Government is it undemocratic nature. The Government made decision without consultations with the range of religious organizations and through defiance of the recommendations of the Public Defender. In view of the fact that the Patriarchate immediately encouraged this decision, we can assume that there were consultations held with the Orthodox Church and the Patriarchate provided its approval for funding of only four religious organizations. This situation is similar to the one present in 2011 in respect with the amendment of the rule of registration of the religious organizations. The Patriarchate approved to grant status of the legal entity of public law to only four religious organizations and protested against entitlement of registration as legal entity of public law to the much wider group of religious organizations.

7. Still another problematic part of the Resolution states, that in order to be granted the monetary compensation, the religious organizations shall “until 1 May, 2014, a) reorganize and unify through registration as one legal entity of public law, which would be entitled to accept the compensations; or b) create coordination council, which will consist of the representatives of all religious organizations of a specific confession and which will be authorized to communicate with the state organs on behalf of their confession and accept their compensation; or c) confirm in writing the authorization of one of them to represent a specific confession in relationship with the state and receive the compensation.” It is noteworthy, that artificial incentivizing for different religious organizations of the same confession to unify in order to receive the funding, whereas these religious organizations may disagree on the range of issues, entails danger of the deepening strife between them, generating conflict and strengthening the negative attitude towards the Government of Georgia. It is also unclear, which criteria shall guide the religious groups unified as one legal person in the process of division of the state funding.

7. As the representatives of the Government stated, one of the motives for provision of budget funding for Muslims is to strengthen the Administration of Muslims of All Georgia. However, this initiative causes discontent of one part of Muslims. The previous (Saakashvili-led) Government, as well as the new Government have been grossly meddling at multiple times in the internal affairs of Muslims, arbitrarily divided the Muslim citizens of Georgia on the ground of their ethnicity, arbitrarily discharged the old Sheikh of the Shiites of Georgia and appointed new Sheikh, and did not allow the Sunni Muslims of Georgia to enjoy the right to freely choose their Mufti. It is true, that the new rule of financing is exactly aiming to strengthen the Muslim organization founded through the interference of the Government, but the issue of “financial support”, most likely will further exacerbate the strife within the Muslim community and deepen their distrust towards the Government.

In view of the abovementioned, the Tolerance and Diversity Institute considers, that due to the necessity of democratic involvement in the decision-making and due to crucial importance for the protection of the constitutional principles of secularism, freedom of religion and equality, the Government of Georgia shall stop taking decisions related to the religious minorities through the closed procedures.

TDI also calls for starting the consultations with the wide range of religious organizations, the Public Defender and non-governmental organizations for the protection of the freedom of religion and following the consultations a. to review the decision, that is already taken, if it appears to be necessary and b) in order to encourage the civil integration and the tolerant environment, to draft the strategy for communication with the religious organizations.

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