Analysis of Recent Occurrences in Mokhe Village

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Another conflict on the grounds of religious intolerance unfolded in October 2014 between the local Muslim community and the police in Adigeni Municipality, which involved harsh violation of Muslims’ rights. A demonstration where Muslims protested deconstruction of a mosque, now called a disputed building, was dispersed violently by representatives of the Ministry of Internal affairs of Georgia. Witnesses say that the police representatives used both physical violence and verbal abuse against the Muslims.

The citizens who were arrested during the conflict also indicate violence by the police. TDI visited Adigeni municipality on October 26-27, to record the opinions of the local population and government representatives.

Currently the reconstruction of the disputed building is suspended. The Muslim community demands that the building should be returned and a mosque re-established in it. The Patriarchate of Georgia also claims ownership. According to representatives of the Orthodox Church, there was a Christian church on the disputed site in XVI century, and construction of a mosque started in the 1920-es [1].

During his meeting with the local Muslim community in the Mokhe village, the head of the Agency of Religious Affairs Zaza Vashakmadze said that a commission will be created, and specialists will determine origins of the disputed building and its historic ownership [2].

Description of Factual Circumstances:

Disputed Building

The current Muslim population settled in the Mokhe village in the years 1975-80. The disputed building, which they want to be returned, is a part of their collective memory. They still retell the history of construction of the mosque by their ancestors. According to them, the mosque was built by Muslim Meskhs in the years 1927-34. In an interview with TDI, Eziz Beridze, a 74 year- old village elder, retells his father’s account that his family used to go to the Mosque of Mokhe every Sunday from a remote Kikibo village, since it was the only mosque nearby. Beridze also remembers that his grandfather sold a cow to donate for construction of the mosque (see the video). According to the Muslims, this mosque had been functioning until their mass exile was ordered by Stalin in 1940s.

Muslims claim that in the ruins of the building a Mihrab is preserved — a niche characteristic for Islamic architecture, which indicates the direction to Kaaba (Ka’aba), which one should face while praying. It is a semicircular apse separated from a wall by two or more pillars. According to them, there are also traces of minaret stairs at the site.

The building has a status of a club from 1957. During the Soviet Union it was used as a store house, a village club and a library. Since 2007 it has been registered as a property of Adigeni Municipality.  The Muslim community addressed the local government, asking to restore or to conserve the mosque, several times since the 90ies. However no actions were taken.

On 30th of October 2007, 22 inhabitants of Mokhe addressed the Ombudsman with a collective letter (#1653-07), in which they said that Muslims started installing fences around the building without agreement with local government, which caused protest from local Christian community. The Muslims were asking the local government to build a fence around and restore the building. The letter was forwarded to Adigeni Municipality administration for further response.

On February 25, 2008, head of the municipality Z. Chilingarashvili indicated in his letter that “the building belongs to the municipality and hence, it will be restored by the municipality’’

On May 27, 2014, Mokhe village Muslim community addressed local government to transfer the rights of ownership to the local Mufti board. The issue was postponed due to local elections. Muslims claim that they were promised by the Mufti of Western Georgia, Jemal Paksadze, and local government representatives that the issue would be solved after local government elections.

In the wake of elections, On July 8, 2014, Muslim community received a letter (#1019) from the head of Adigeni Municipality Zaqaria Endeladze in which he indicates that the disputed property can be only used by local government to serve public needs.

As noted in the letter: “the club located in the village Mokhe should not lose its functional significance, hence Adigeni Municipality administration decided to fully restore it… and a musical, choreographic and ethnographic center should be opened.”

The Muslim community protested the local authorities’ decision and addressed central government asking to return the mosque. On 16th of October, prime minister of Georgia Irakli Gharibashvili promised Muslims gathered in Batumi that he would study the issue of the disputed building in a week [3].

Two days after the Prime Minister’s promise, on 18th of October, workers of the winner company of the reconstruction tender arrived in the village and started demolishing the building [4] . Local Muslims asked the construction workers to suspend their activities. The construction workers left the village immediately, which resulted in protest from the local Christian community.  The Christians gathered in the village center and declared that they would not allow transfer of the ownership of the building to Muslims and construction of a Muslim cult building at the site [5].

According to Muslims living in Adigeni Municipality, the following two days they were under psychological pressure from the local government. The leader of the Chela mosque Jambul Abuladze says that the Governor of Samtske-Javakati Akaki Machutadze asked several members of the Muslim community to visit him, threatened them and declared that the local government will not return the building to the Muslims [6].

Currently the Patriarchate of Georgia also claims ownership of the disputed building. On 24th of October, a letter by the Archbishop Teodore of Akhaltsikhe, Tao-Klarjeti and Lazeti appeared in media [7]. Representatives of the Orthodox Church claim that there was a Christian church on the same site in XVI century, and that a mosque was built there in 1920ies, during the period of demolition of churches. However, the Muslims say that the Christian community never claimed that the disputed building had been a church before, and such a claim was raised publicly only in response to the recent developments.

Christians living in Mokhe share voice the opinion held by the Orthodox clergy. Some even claim that a mosque was never actually functioning, since the building of the mosque hadn’t been finished. Some villagers declare that even if it will be determined that an Orthodox church never existed at the site they will still oppose building a mosque there. One of the villagers, Bejan Rekhviashvili explains the motive: “I am against it [building the mosque], it is Georgian land! I am Christian, should not I be against it? Don’t they have a mosque? One, two… why do they need another?” Another local man, Tariel Kharshiladze, thinks that by building the mosque “a Muslim forces a Christian to get out and intrudes his family.”

The attempt to monopolize public space is visible in the Orthodox parishes’ discourse. Recent events demonstrate that religious minorities’ constitutional right to preach, practice their faith and religious rites in public is constantly violated. Government representatives, for whom legitimation from the dominant religious group is important, fail to protect fundamental rights of religious minorities and provide equal possibilities for use of public space to all citizens.

The recent conflict concerning the disputed building in Mokhe village highlights the necessity of restitution of the cult buildings to religious minorities. The research published by the Tolerance and Diversity Institute (TDI) in 2014, Assessment of the needs of religious organizations in Georgia, indicates the restitution of the property confiscated during the Soviet regime to the religious organizations, as one of the key necessities.

On October 14, 2002, the government of Georgia and Georgian Orthodox Church reached a constitutional agreement indicating that “Orthodox churches, monasteries (functional or not), their remnants, and the land on which they are located” are the property of the Patriarchate [8]. However, the government of Georgia has not reached similar agreements with any of the other religious organizations. The government did not adopt a law on restitution and the minority religious organizations did not regain control even over those buildings for which the Patriarchate had no claims (but the government wished to keep for its own use), let alone the ones claimed by the Patriarchate. While government and inter-religious committees were formally formed in order to establish the true origins and ownership of the contested places of worship, these committees have performed no real function. The “dispute” between religious organizations, the state, and the Patriarchate about restitution of the minority historical heritage has been going on for years and provides clear examples of systematic discrimination on religious-ethnic grounds.

Violent Actions Allegedly Committed by the Police and Cases of Violation of Muslims’ Rights

On October 22, 2014, workers resumed deconstruction of the Mokhe mosque [9]. Physical violence was used against Muslims who protested the unexpected and repressive decision by the government, and their rights were severely violated.

Police arrested 14 citizens during the incident: 11 of them for actions defined by the 166th (disorderly conduct) and 173th (disobedience to lawful order or request of a law enforcement officer) articles of Georgia’s code of Administrative Offences. Three people were arrested for violation of the 353th article of the criminal code, implying group resistance against a law enforcement officer or other government representatives.

On October 23, the court released 3 Muslim citizens – Teimuraz Mikeladze, Otar Mikeladze and Malkhaz Beridze without pressing charges (although investigation is still under way) [10], while the other 11 were charged with administrative penalty (GEL 250). Ten of them are appealing against the decision.

Witnesses report that while detaining the Muslim citizens, police offended them physically and verbally. Some of them were physically injured during the confrontation. In relation to these facts, TDI has recorded the assessments made by the Muslims.

Explanations Given by Muslims

An absolute majority of the respondents interviewed by TDI claims that during the incident which occurred next to the disputed building on October 22, police officers were offending them physically and calling them “Tatrebi” (Tatars). During the incident, a 59-year-old woman, Shura Mikeladze, was injured and had to be transferred to Adigeni hospital by ambulance [11]. The ministry of internal affairs denies the facts of violence.

Otar Mikeladze who was detained on October 22 under a charge of criminal offence, talks about excessive use of force by the police in the interview conducted by TDI.

Mikeladze says that during the protest rally he addressed the police officers with particular questions: “I asked, is there religious equality declared in the country, do we have the anti-discrimination law or not, do we want to integrate into Europe or not, to which they replied — yes. Afterwards I asked: are these the methods with which you want to achieve that? In response to that they ordered my arrest.”

According to Mikeladze’s account, he didn’t resist the law enforcement officers during the process of detainment. After the policemen put him into a car, Mikeladze informed his family about the detainment by phone. According to Mikeladze, afterwards the policemen offended him physically and verbally. His detainment resulted in a large-scale protest. Muslims blocked the car’s way and demanded that Mikeladze was released. During the confrontation, the police confiscated and destroyed mobile phones of several Muslims who were trying to film the incident.

Teimuraz Mikeladze who was detained under a charge of criminal offence, has traces of physical violence on his face, several days after the detainment. According to Mikeladze, police representatives were physically and verbally offending him during the detainment, and he was severely beaten by policemen in their room, after being transferred to the Adigeni police department. Other detained Muslims, who were next to the room, confirm the fact of violence. “We heard screaming” — says Muslim Gocha Beridze.

It should be noted, that the Public Defender also talks about the physical injuries. Namely, in the Public Defender’s statement from October 26 it is noted that the protocols of visual examination made in the temporary detention confirm that the detainee had various injuries on their bodies [12].

Assessments Made by Local Government Representatives Concerning Handling of Disputed Constructions and Conduct of Law Enforcement Officers

On October 27, TDI met the governor of Adigeni municipality, Zakaria Endeladze, the vice-governor Mindia Jelia and the head of the budget-finance and property management commission of the Adigeni Assembly, Imeda Mghebrishvili.

According to the governor, the detainment of the Muslims on October 22 had legitimate grounds. “You can’t achieve what you want through violent means… The Muslims were physically offending the police. They committed an unlawful act, which is punished by law… If the police can’t solve [an issue] with words, it is afterwards granted the right to use physical force.” The governor also justified the particular acts of violence against Teimuraz Mikeladze: “— ask Mikeladze, why they beat him…”

According to Endeladze, he never promised the Muslim community to transfer the disputed building in the Mokhe village to them. In response to the question whether it was possible to discuss returning the property confiscated during the Soviet Union to the Muslims, in order to avoid the religious confrontation, the governor said that “it would be good if concessions could bring adequate results, but the appetite which is present wouldn’t be satisfied by that. You will concede one thing and they will demand another…”

According to the representatives of the Governor’s Office and the Assembly, Georgian Patriarchate also has claims on the property: “just because they don’t break into our doors and demand it, doesn’t mean they don’t claim it.”

According to the governor, there are more than 100 constructions of Christian origin in the region, property rights to which the Patriarchate demands. “The rights of the Muslims aren’t violated. On the contrary, our people are often more oppressed” — says the head of the budget-finance and property management commission of the Adigeni municipality council, Imeda Mghebrishvili.

Assessments Made by Central Government Representatives

The statements made by many of the government representatives in relation to the above-mentioned facts are inadequate and discriminatory towards Muslims. On October 23, Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili said, that “there already is one mosque in the village and the Muslims can pray without any problems” [13] . The Prime Minister did not say anything concerning the violent actions allegedly committed by the police and put the whole responsibility on the Muslim community. The representative of the State Agency of Religious Issues, Vladimer Narsia also stressed that the Muslims used violence against the police. He added that “their interests do not have legitimate grounds” [14]. The State Minister of Reconciliation and Civic Equality Paata Zakareishvili openly supported the governor of Samtskhe-Javakheti in his decision to place a cultural center in the building [15] . In contrast to the reactions from above-mentioned government officials, the response of the President’s Administration is positive and adequate. Sophio Shamanidi, the President’s advisor on Minority Issues, said that the local government should not have made the decision to place a cultural center in the building located in the center of the village. According to her, to avoid escalation of the conflict, the results of the tender should be annulled, and in order to avoid similar conflicts in future, the government has to develop a policy in relation to the religious and ethnic minorities.

Recommendations

Assessment of the Needs of Religious Minorities in Georgia, the study conducted by TDI in 2014, reveals that representatives of religious minorities report religious persecution through physical and verbal abuse as one of the most acute problems in Georgia. Indeed, latest reports demonstrate that law enforcers do not react effectively or, in most cases, adequately to offences committed on the grounds of religious intolerance. Moreover, there have been instances of law enforcers being involved in violence on the grounds of religious intolerance and themselves violating the rights of worshipers.

In 2012-2014, persecution, limitation, and discriminatory treatment of Muslims obtained a more systematic and large-scale format, and became especially problematic. The instances of violation of rights of Muslims in villages Nigvziani, Tsintskaro, and Samtatskaro in 2012-2013 remain uninvestigated. These instances bear signs of criminal law violations. The investigation of the illegal removal of a minaret in the village Chela on August 26, 2013 and physical violence against the local Muslims has not been initiated yet, which clearly demonstrates disrespect for Muslims’ rights on government level. Moreover, Government officials, who made public statements on the events as they unfolded, did not admit that these incidents violated the rights of Muslims and instead called the conflict “artificially incited.”

Due to the problems described above, the relevant government bodies should take into account the following recommendations:

To the Prosecutor’s Office of Georgia:

  • The likely instances of physical violence committed by the representatives of the Ministry of Internal Affairs on October 22, against the Muslims in the Mokhe village, should be investigated in a timely and effective manner.

To the Government of Georgia:

  • The cases of the discrimination against Muslims on religious grounds should be given adequate and just qualification. The government should ensure adequate conduct of law enforcement officials, and protection of religious freedom and equality, as guaranteed by the Constitution.
  • The government should take into account the Public Defender’s recommendation[16] concerning the creation of a state commission for the restitution issues, which should include representatives of the Public Defender’s office and the involved religious organizations. The commission should develop a plan for restitution of the property confiscated during the Soviet Union to its historical owners, in a short time, and ensure its timely and effective implementation.

To the representatives of local government

  • The local government should stand by the principle of religious neutrality and ensure that the citizens can exercise their religious freedom in practice.

 

 

A video material filmed by TDI: Eziz beridze talks about the mosque in the Mokhe village:

___________________________________________________________

[1]http://www.interpressnews.ge/ge/sazogadoeba/302158-meufe-theodore-mizanshetsonilad-miichnevs-sofel-mokheshi-sadao-shenoba-sapatriarqos-gadaeces.html?ar=A

[2]http://newposts.ge/?l=G&id=53823-%E1%83%9B%E1%83%9D%E1%83%AE%E1%83%94,%20%E1%83%9B%E1%83%A3%E1%83%A1%E1%83%9A%E1%83%98%E1%83%9B%E1%83%94%E1%83%91%E1%83%98,%20%E1%83%91%E1%83%98%E1%83%91%E1%83%9A%E1%83%98%E1%83%9D%E1%83%97%E1%83%94%E1%83%99%E1%83%90

[3] http://sknews.ge/index.php?newsid=4435#.VEjX_xbVfIU

[4] http://www.tabula.ge/ge/story/88780-muslimebi-sofel-moxeshi-dzveli-mechetis-demontazhs-aprotesteben

[5] http://sknews.ge/index.php?newsid=4433#.VFDJbzSUfp5

[6] http://sknews.ge/index.php?newsid=4445#.VejTgRbVfIU

[7] http://www.interpressnews.ge/ge/sazogadoeba/302158-meufe-theodore-mizanshetsonilad-miichnevs-sofel-mokheshi-sadao-shenoba-sapatriarqos-gadaeces.html?ar=A

[8] Constitutional agreement, Article 7. 1-2. http://www.patriarchate.ge/?action=text/samartali05

[9] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lLkWQib5jnc&feature=youtu.be

[10] http://sknews.ge/index.php?newsid=4484#.VFCpszSUfp4

[11] http://sknews.ge/index.php?newsid=4463#.VFILczSUfp6

[12] http://www.ombudsman.ge/ge/news/sofel-moxeshi-ganvitarebuli-movlenebi-xelisuflebis-mxridan-adekvatur-reagirebas-sachiroebs.page

[13] http://www.liberali.ge/ge/liberali/news/120937/

[14] http://www.liberali.ge/ge/liberali/news/120929/

[15] http://9arkhi.wordpress.com/2014/10/23/%E1%83%9E%E1%83%90%E1%83%90%E1%83%A2%E1%83%90-%E1%83%96%E1%83%90%E1%83%A5%E1%83%90%E1%83%A0%E1%83%94%E1%83%98%E1%83%A8%E1%83%95%E1%83%98%E1%83%9A%E1%83%98%E1%83%A1%E1%83%97%E1%83%95%E1%83%98%E1%83%A1/

[16] See the Public Defender’s 2013 report.

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