TDI on the report and the strategy of religious policy prepared by the State Agency for Religious Issues

3/19/2015

On February 23, 2015 The State Agency for Religious Issues (hereafter the Agency) presented the report of 2014 and the state strategy of religious policy[1]. The report is not published on the webpage; the draft of the Strategy is available in Georgian. The representatives of the Agency verbally confirm that the document is a project of the strategy, however, it is not indicated on the webpage that the document is not a final draft and has to be revised.[2]

Tolerance and Diversity Institute (TDI) analyzed two documents, translated important passages into English and included commentaries on significant points.

It is also should be noted, that the NGOs working on religious issues were not invited to the presentation of the report and the strategy. Also, it is not clear particularly who prepared the text of the Strategy; the NGOs working in the field of freedom of religion were not involved in the elaboration of the document, hence, the process was not transparent.

Report of the State Agency for Religious Issues, July- December 2014

 

  • Analysis of the International Legislation

Agency: It is noted in the report, that the Agency analyzed the legislation in respect with religious issues in the member states of EU and the Council of Europe, namely: Austria, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bosnia, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, the Russian Republic, Poland, Portuguese, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Macedonia.

The Agency highlights that in the above-mentioned states the “law establishes a hierarchy among religious organizations, there are different rules regarding the acknowledgment of religious organizations, norms of registration and it is important, that they are different!” It means that registered and recognized religious entities have different rights and responsibilities.

TDI: The Agency often stresses that there should be a hierarchy among religious organizations; it differentiates so called “traditional” and “non-traditional” religious entities, which creates a threat of further marginalization of particular religious organizations and the strengthening of discriminatory attitudes towards them.

As it is known, through the amendment of the Civil Code on 5 July, 2011, a new article 15091 was incorporated in the Code. According to this this Article, religious organizations were granted an opportunity to stand on the equal footing with the Georgian Orthodox Church from the perspective of registration of their legal statuses. From the report of the Agency, it seems the government may intend to introduce new regulations for ranking religious organizations according to their legal statuses.

 

  • Funding of Religious Organizations

Agency: Despite the fact that Georgia is not the legal successor of the Soviet Union, the Georgian state acknowledges the responsibility for religious entities which endured moral damages during the Soviet regime. According to the Government Resolution of 27 January, 2014, the Government of Georgia expressed its political will to compensate partially and symbolically material and moral damages to “Religious Organizations of Islamic, Jewish, Roman-Catholic and Armenian Apostolic Confessions, which are registered as legal entities under public law” prior to 27 January, 2014.

The Georgian government confirmed that it is unknown the amount of the damages inflicted upon religious entities; hence, the compensation is symbolical.

According to the Government Resolution of 13 March, 2014, #437, 1 750 000 GEL was allocated from the reserve funds of the government for above-mentioned purposes.

After consultations with religious organizations and the study of factual circumstances (the number of congregations, the number of the houses of worship and the number of the clergy) the Agency held the meeting on November 10, 2014. Based on the existing data, it was decided to allocate the amount of money to the following religious organizations:

Muslim community- GEL 1 100 000

Diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Georgia – GEL 300 000

Roman Catholic Church in Georgia – GEL 200 000

Jewish community – GEL 150 000

In 2015, for the same purposes, the Government of Georgia will allocate GEL 3, 500 000.

TDI: In general, compensation of damages, as legal concept serves to redress the violated legal interest of a specific person. For this purpose, it is necessary to identify a person or group of persons damaged by a specific historical event or events, acts which inflicted the damages and finally the amount of damages. The above-mentioned Resolution of the Government does not contain any of these elements. The Government did not ascertain which specific religious organizations were actually harmed by the Soviet regime and arbitrarily picked four religious confessions – hence, the group of victims was determined averting the historical criteria.  Moreover, if there are several legal entities under public law, which represent the same confession, they are required to unite into one legal person, or create coordination council or to waive their right of compensation in favor of other organizations, in order receive the money.

In view of all the above-mentioned, it may be inferred, that this is not the compensation of damages inflicted during the Soviet times, but a plan of funding of religious organizations which were selected through ambiguous and non-transparent process. This could be inspired by the motive of funding of these religious organizations specifically on one hand. On the other hand, it may aim to further legitimize the funding of the Georgian Orthodox Church from the State Budget for past years through demonstration that other religious organizations also benefit from public resources besides the Orthodox Church. Thus, we may conclude, that there is high probability, that the Resolution on compensation of damages does not aim on eradication of disparate treatment, but aims on maintaining the present differential treatment and at the same time gives rise to a new wave of inequality between the listed four confessions and other religious organizations which were also damaged in the Soviet times and which are not entitled to receive the allowance in spite of this.

  • Recommendatory Commission studying the property and funding issues of religious organizations

Agency: For the implementation of the project, compensation of material and moral damages inflicted on religious organizations during the Soviet Regime (According to the Government Resolution #117, of 27 January, 2014) the action plan was created. After several meetings with religious organizations, the Recommendatory commission on property and funding issues of religious entities was created.

According to the Statute, the competences of the State Agency for Religious Issues include the adoption of recommendations on construction of religions buildings, determination of their locations and transformation of certain buildings into houses of worship. Based on the above-mentioned competences, the Agency addressed in a written statement and explained to the self-governmental entities that “any decision regarding the construction of the houses of worship, funding of religious organizations from the central or local budget, or other issues included in the competences of local municipalities should be coordinated with the Agency. The official documents sent by the self-governmental entities will be discussed by the Recommendatory commission on property and funding issues of the religious entities”.

The commission is composed of 9 members, from which 6 members are the Agency representatives.

In 2014 the commission held 2 meetings, on October 20, and on December 17.

On October 20, the commission discussed 11 applications, and gave 8 positive and 2 negative recommendations, 1 application was marked as having a gap. On December 17, the commission discussed 16 applications, and gave 8 positive and 2 negative recommendations, 1 of them of the Muslim community (positively decided) and another 15 of the Georgian Orthodox Church (7 applications were given a positive response, 1 application was removed from the discussion issues, 2 were given a negative response, in 6 applications certain shortcomings were identified)

TDI: The mandate of the Agency is not transparent and political and legal significance of its recommendations is not clear, particularly in the case, when the recommendations are addressed not to the Government, which established this body, but to the local governmental entities or other authorities. The procedure for elaboration of the recommendations is also not clear and there are no safeguards that the process is fair and inclusive.

  • Identification of problems in the legislation and preparation of respective legislative initiatives

The Agency states, that such kind of document does not exist yet, however, it is important to initiate a new overarching, complex legislative framework by the State to regulate religious issues. (TDI note: it means the Agency wants to impose new state regulations on religious entities).

  • The issues pertaining to the identification of historical owners of religious buildings

It is noted that the Agency plans to invite respective “academic personal and experts” to come up with mechanisms regarding the identification of historical origins of cult buildings.

No further information is given regarding this issue.

The Mokhe Commission [3]

The Agency notes, that Human Rights Watch in 2015 report did not express its concerns regarding minority issues. (However, the report confirms the opposite: In October, police used disproportionate force to break up a protest in a small village and detain 14 participants demonstrating against the government’s plans to rebuild a former mosque as a library. Courts fined 11 of them GEL 250 (roughly $140) each for petty hooliganism and disobeying police orders. Authorities did not effectively investigate police conduct.[4])

It is noted, that after the conflict,[5] the Agency created the commission to study the circumstances regarding the building having a status of a “club” in Mokhe village of Adigeni Municipality. The goal of the commission is to resolve the conflict and settle the issues.

There are 12 members in the commission: 4 representatives from the Administration of All Muslims of Georgia, 3 members from the Georgian Orthodox Church, 2 members from Adigeni municipality local government, 2 members from the National Agency for Cultural Heritage Preservation of Georgia, 1 member from the Agency, as a mediator between the parties.

On December 27, 2014 the Agency held the first proceeding of the Commission where the charter of the commission was presented and the members were named.

It is noted in the report, that the commission will decide the issue “with a consensus”.

TDI: The Agency refused TDI and other NOGs to attend the meetings of the Commission. In the official  letter sent to TDI (#1/141) the Agency states that due to the sensitiveness of the issue the proceedings of the commission are closed and the records of the proceedings are not public. It poses a threat that the work of the commission will not be transparent.

  • Public Education

Agency: It is noted in the report that public school textbooks and curriculums should be revised to reflect tolerant ideas and principles of religious, ethnic, racial, cultural and political diversity. The Agency states that special monitoring forms should be elaborated in this regard and they are working on these issues with the Ministry of General Education and Science of Georgia.

TDI: Despite the secular and liberal legal regulations, discrimination on religious grounds at public educational institutions in Georgia is one of the most problematic issues. Children belonging to religious minority groups are forced to take education in the environment where principles of religious neutrality are harshly violated. The instances of proselytism, collective prayer, display of religious symbols for non-academic purposes, and setting up prayer corners in favor of the dominant religious organization – Georgian Orthodox Church, are frequent at public educational institutions. It has also become a common practice instituted by school administrations to invite Orthodox Christian clerics for preaching and performing religious rituals (blessing, consecration, public prayer). Teachers and students sometimes humiliate members of religious minorities; there have been attempts to forcefully baptize students representing religious minority groups. It means the Georgian Law on Basic Education is violated to promote exclusively one religion and the Ministry of Education and Science does not address this problem[6]. Latest reports of local organizations and the Public Defender focus on the problem of inadequate or one-sided representation of religious content in public educational institutions and discrimination of students on religious grounds.[7] 

Considering the above-mentioned it is a direct responsibility of the Ministry of Education and Science to ensure that the Georgian Law on Basic Education is not violated and it should take active measures to monitor the cases of violations and respond to them adequately. It is not clear what the role of the Agency is in this regard and why it is interfering with the competences of the Ministry.

It also should be noted, that the head of the Agency, Mr. Zaza Vashakmadze was one of the initiators to teach Orthodox Christian religion at public schools.[8]

“We are talking about taking into account the will of the 90 % of the population. What do you think, who is more honest, adhering to moral values – a believer, or an atheist or a non-believer and hence, ignorant?” – He stated in 2012. [9]

Stemming from Mr. Vashakmadze’s earlier statements and biased attitudes, there is a threat that religious neutrality might be violated for the benefit of the dominant religious organization, the Georgian Orthodox Church.

 

  • Non-Governmental Organizations

The Agency dedicates a separate chapter to the non-governmental organizations. I give an exact citation: “Today the issue of the freedom of religion is almost privatized by CSOs, they consider the State and the State Agency of Religious Affairs as their opponents and it cracks down on the democratic image of a new Georgian state.”

The Agency comments on 2014 research conducted by TDI and EMC about the state funding of religious organizations: [10] The Agency reproaches us, that despite their interest we did not send them our recommendations.

TDI: In response to this statement, I would say, that the Agency never requested from us to submit any written separate list of recommendations. We had a presentation of our research at the Agency where we noted, that the state funding policy does not meet the requirements of secular, democratic, non-discriminatory and accountable funding system. It is based on the approach of preference and absolute prioritization of the Orthodox Church. The scale of financial assistance for the Orthodox Church by the central and local governments is big, its necessity is not justified by the public interest in most cases and the amount is not based on sensible, measurable and objective criteria.

State Strategy of Religious Policy

The analyses of the document shows that religious policy of the state is oriented not at the solution of the persistent and acute problems for religious minorities in Georgia but at strengthening control over religious entities and curtailing their functions. The declared policy of the Agency with regard to freedom of religion does not correspond to the existing challenges, does not confirm to the principles of the separation of state and religion and interferes with the autonomy of religious entities.

  • The initiative of introducing the “Special Law on Religion” and possible infringement on the autonomy of religious entities

Agency: For the last years, it has not been managed to establish goal-oriented, coherent religious policy and the formation of respective legal framework. The religious policy of the State was focused “only on the protection of religious minorities, while along with the protection of interests of religious groups it is necessary to include the discourse of Internal and external security (…) Prior to the establishment of the Agency these issues were delegated to certain state structures, which caused the delay of the regulation of particular issues and indicated the State’s disdainful approach to the field of religion (…) It is important to impose a “special law on religion”.

TDI: In fact, The analysis of the legal framework and administrative practices for protection of religious freedom demonstrates, that the most acute problems posing religious minorities mostly are emanated not by normative acts, but an unfair implementation of the existing legislation, the behavior of the public officials in different areas, be it construction permission process, enforcement of criminal or administrative justice on the offences committed on the grounds of religious intolerance or the restitution of ownership on the property taken by the Soviet Union, particularly on religious buildings.

It also should be noted, that law enforcement agencies are passive in response to reported crimes and fail to implement preventive measures. In 2012-2014, persecution and discriminatory treatment of religious minorities in Georgia obtained a systematic and large-scale format, and has become highly problematic. In 2013-2014 in the offences committed on the grounds of religious intolerance law enforcement officers were allegedly involved, which is not investigated and perpetrators are not brought to justice. Investigating bodies frequently fail to launch investigations under appropriate legal articles that punish persecution on the grounds of religious intolerance, obstruction of religious rites, and violation of human equality. Finally, investigation process tends to be drawn out or reach no legal outcomes.

It is true, that there is a whole range of problems from the perspective of prevention of discrimination and reinforcing the secular approaches in the legislation as well: tax and customs law, basic and high education legislation, Law of Georgia on State Property and in the rule of compensation of damages inflicted by the Soviet Union, However, the State’s policy should aim to eradicate the shortcomings in the existing legislation, and not to impose new regulations which might infringe on the freedom of religion and curtail the scope of function for religious entities.

 

  • Establishing hierarchical (including legal) differences among religious entities

Agency: “Along with religious minorities and individuals, special public good could be generated by major and traditional religions in Georgia.”

Legal differences: Legal conditions of religious entities should be based on their legitimate interests and objective conditions, and this factor does not exclude imposing differential legal statuses for them.

State funding or property distribution should be emanated from the legal statuses of religious entities.

TDI: First, it should be noted, that in several passages religious minorities are mentioned in a negative context. Underlining the priority of so-called “traditional” religious entities over “non-traditional” ones, in public discourse often referred to as “sects”, might cause further marginalization and stigmatization of certain religious minorities. Public officials should abstain themselves from establishing a hierarchy and diminishing the contribution of various religions entities to Georgian culture and history.

In respect with granting divergent legal statuses, it should be pointed out, that the amendment of the Civil Code in 2011 was a step forward in creating more equal environment – religious entities were given an opportunity to freely choose forms of legal registration. This advancement might be undermined by imposing differential legal statuses.

  • Defining the rules for building houses of worship

Agency: the Agency should define rules for building and ownership of the houses of worship, including construction and ownership rights for foreigners.

TDI: We consider that there is no necessity of introducing special norms regulating construction of the houses of worship, since it might create additional hindrances for religious entities. It should be noted, that religious minorities often point to discriminatory treatment and artificially created bureaucratic barriers by public officials.

  • Teaching Religion at Public Schools

As it is mentioned in the commentary on the Agency’s report (see above), because of the scarcity of qualified academic personnel and the existing discriminatory environment at public educational institutions, there is a high probability that teaching religion at public schools might legitimize further practice of religious indoctrination, proselytism and breach of religious neutrality from the side of the dominant group.

 

[1] News about the presentation is available in Georgian: http://religion.geo.gov.ge/geo/news/religiis-sakitxta-saxelmtsifo-saagentom-2014

[2] http://religion.geo.gov.ge/geo/document/saqartvelos-saxelmtsifos-religiuri-politikis

[3] 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, see more at : https://tdigeorgia.wordpress.com/2014/11/03/analysis-of-events-in-mokhe-village/

[4] http://www.hrw.org/world-report/2015/country-chapters/georgia?page=2

[5] TDI analyses of the occurrences in Mokhe village can be found here: https://tdigeorgia.wordpress.com/2014/11/03/analysis-of-events-in-mokhe-village/

[6] Proselytism, religious indoctrination and display of religious symbols at schools for non-academic purposes are prohibited under Article 18 of the Law of Georgia on Basic Education.

[7] Assessment of the Needs of Religious Minorities in Georgia, Tolerance and Diversity Institute (TDI), 2014    https://tdigeorgia.wordpress.com/2014/11/03/discrimination-in-public-educational-institutions/; Religion in Public Schools, EMC, 2014 , available at:  http://emc.org.ge/2014/03/31/religion-in-public-schools/

[8] http://www.netgazeti.ge/GE/91/Life/8091/

[9] http://www.netgazeti.ge/GE/105/News/31072/

[10] https://tdigeorgia.wordpress.com/2014/10/18/state-funding-for-religious-organizations-in-georgia-brief-report/

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