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Assailant Ex-Priest Arrested
/ 13 Mar.'04 / 13:45
Giorgi Sepashvili, Civil Georgia

In recent years Georgia has been criticized by
the international organizations for violation of
religious minorities’ rights, mainly because of
Mkalavishvili’s activity.
Arrest of maverick and once ‘untouchable’ defrocked Orthodox priest Basili Mkalavishvili in a police raid on Church on March 12 triggered opposition’s allegations that the new authorities undermine Georgia’s dominant and influential Orthodox Church. President Saakashvili denied accusations and justified arrest by “the goal to defend Georgian Orthodox Church.”

Basili Mkalavishvili, wanted for violent attacks against the religious minority groups, was arrested after the riot police stormed a Church in a suburb of Tbilisi, where Mkalavishvili and his supporters barricaded themselves.

Riot police used tier gas and batons in a clash with the Mkalavishvili supporters. Dozens were injured as a result.

Wanted ex-priest made a surprise move on March 11 and convened a press conference in the backyard of the Public Defenders Office in Tbilisi and slammed the country’s new authorities for protection ‘sects’ and undermining Orthodox Christianity.

“Georgia became another U.S. state, governed by George Soros [the US billionaire],” Basili Mkalavishvili said. He added that the new authorities intend “to officially register Jehovah's Witnesses” – a religious group which was a main target Mkalavishvili’s attacks.

“Mikheil Saakashvili [the President] wants to destroy Orthodox Christianity in Georgia,” Mkalavishvili said. 

Despite arrest warrant, which was issued last year, police failed to arrest him till now. Last June Mkalavishvili’s supporters prevented the law enforcers from taking Mkalavishvili in detention.

Court in Tbilisi sentenced Basili Mkalavishvili to three-month pre-trial detention on June 4, 2003, pending investigation. He is accused of masterminding and carrying our organized violence against Jehovah's Witnesses and Baptist-Evangelists and burning their religious literature in 2002 in Tbilisi.

However, Mkalavishvili’s record of assaults on religious minorities includes much more violent raids, carried out by his mob in the name of “protection of Orthodox Christianity from the sects.”

Mkalavishvili was excommunicated in 1995, as he was criticizing the Orthodox Church leadership for “not radical stance” towards the religious minorities.

Since then, Georgia was more frequently appearing in the reports of the international human right watchdog organizations as a country known for violent attacks against the religious minorities. And Basili Mkalavishvili became a key figure in religious extremism.

Crowd armed with the big wooden crosses and batons and women praying and chanting the religious chorales, led by Mkalavishvili, beating up Jehovah's Witnesses and burning their religious literature – a footage showing this kind of scenes were usually recorded by Mkalavishvili’s supporters themselves and then broadcasted by the Georgian televisions. 

Religious minorities were not the only targets of the extremist group. In 2001 Mkalavishvili and his supporters raided Tbilisi-based Rezonansi newspaper, which was one of the few Georgian media outlets, which was slamming authorities for failing to curb the extremist religious group’s activity.

The opposition parties tried to take an advantage of violent clashes that occurred during the arrest of Mkalavishvili and accused the authorities of “excessive use of force.”

The Industrialists-New Rights opposition election bloc condemned the recourse to violence during Mkalavishvili’s arrest and suggested that the new Georgian leadership is out to undermine the Georgian church. “It was barbaric,” Pikria Chikhradze of the Industrialists-New Rights told a news briefing on March 12.

Irakli Mindeli of the Socialists opposition party also said on March 12, while commenting the arrest of Mkalavishvili, there are signs that the new authorities “try to weaken Georgian Orthodox Church.”

The Orthodox Church, which was always distancing itself from Mkalavishvili’s activity, also condemned on 12 March as "unacceptable" the "violent measures" to which police resorted when arresting defrocked priest.

“Georgian Orthodox Church states that Basili Mkalavishvili is not the member of our Church. However, it is unacceptable for us arrests with forceful means. Georgian law enforcers could have arrested Mkalavishvili without clashes,” Giorgi Andriadze, parliamentary secretary to Georgian Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II, told a press conference on March 12.

Critics say that despite distancing itself from Mkalavishvili’s activity, he has many sympathizers among the Orthodox Church’s officials.

Observers note notion that different non-traditional religious groups are manipulated by someone 'hostile foreign forces’ with the purpose of destroying the Georgian nation-state is quite popular and many politicians try to use the religious issues in their rhetoric.

“On the eve of elections [scheduled for March 28] many politicians continued to use the issue of the religion, particularly supremacy of the Georgian Orthodox Church in their platforms. This is very dangerous trend,” influential legal expert Davit Usupashvili said.

He added that law was not violated, while arresting Mkalavishvili. “He was wanted and everybody who will oppose arrest of the wanted is committing a crime,” Davit Usupashvili said while commenting the use of force by the police in a clash with the supporters of Mkalavishvili.

Even President Saakashvili became involved in the religious rhetoric. He denied that the new authorities are undermining Orthodoxy and justified arrest of Mkalavishvili, first of all, by “defending” the Georgian Orthodox Church.

“The extremist religion groups threaten Orthodox Church. My supreme goal, as an Orthodox Christian and as a President, is to defend my religion. I call the people for supporting in my efforts. The State should protect the Church from negative foreign influence and activities of the extremist groups,” President Mikheil Saakashvili said on March 12, while commenting Mkalavishvili’s arrest.

Some observers say that the arrest of Basili is a step forward to curb religious violence, whoever not enough, as there are many sympathizers of Mkalavishvili in the Georgian society.

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