Respect for religious freedom by the Georgian government continued to improve, according to the U.S. State Department’s recent annual report on International Religious Freedom, which covers the period from July 1, 2008, to June 30, 2009.
“Abuse of religious minorities, including violence, verbal harassment, and disruption of services and meetings, continued to decrease,” according to the report released on October 26. “Both government officials and religious leaders attributed this decline to more vigorous government prosecution of those who harass or attack religious minorities.”
Among the issues triggering controversy, the report identifies the legal status and registration of religious groups. According to the law religious groups, other than the Georgian Orthodox Church, whose special role is recognized by the 2002 concordat with the state, may be registered with the government as either unions or foundations.
However, some religious groups, including the Roman Catholic Church and Armenian Apostolic Church continued to express dissatisfaction with the status that registration provided. They remain opposed to registering as civil organizations, stating that they prefer to be recognized explicitly as churches or granted a distinct status as a group based on religion, according to the report.
The Georgian government, however, says that public-private division between the status of the Georgian Orthodox Church and other religious groups is symbolic, as the latter receive the same legal protection and respect for their religious activities as the Georgian Orthodox Church. The only slight difference, the government says, concerns the tax breaks.
According to the report controversy of the legal status creates difficulties related with receiving funding for renovation of churches under the religious minority groups. The report cites the case of a church of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Tbilisi, which has not received funding from the Ministry of Culture because it refuses to be registered. The Ministry of Culture stated, according to the report, that it cannot fund a renovation project as long as the church has no legally registered owner.
Disputes over ownership of number of churches are also identified in the report as a contentious issue. Catholics and Armenian Apostolic Church believe, according to the report, that the Georgian government was unwilling to resolve these disputes over ownership of churches “for fear of offending GOC [Georgian Orthodox Church] constituents.”
“To illustrate the difficulty they had in getting political leaders to address their concerns about disputed property, Catholic leaders said that when they invited the leaders of the main parties competing in the May 2008 parliamentary elections to address their congregants, the party leaders refused, stating that they could not risk being seen as anti-Orthodox prior to the polls,” the report reads.
The report also says that a number of religious minorities reported continuing “media hostility, although most attributed it to the attitudes of individual media reporters rather than a systematic, organized media campaign.”
“Some religious minority leaders noted that the media simply ignored their communities, providing no coverage of their activities,” the report reads.
Citing data from the Prosecutor General’s Office (PGO), the report says that 24 cases involving some type of infringement of religious freedom were investigated between July, 2007 and May, 2008. Most of these cases concerned Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“Both PGO and Jehovah's Witnesses leaders characterized these incidents as relatively minor and involving only a few individuals,” according to the report.