There were no reports of abuses of religious freedom. Implementation of new policies to further promote religious freedom improved, although some systemic issues remained largely unchanged such as the return and maintenance of disputed church property claimed by religious minority groups and currently held by government entities, the privileged legal and tax status of the GOC, and inadequate enforcement of separation of church and state in public schools. Minority religious groups noted that local police response and prosecutorial investigations improved during the year.
Except for the GOC, restitution of disputed property confiscated during the communist regime remained a contentious issue. RCC and AAC officials claimed property disputes were not resolved in a transparent legal process but rather on a case-by-case basis that distinctly favored GOC claims. They asserted the government was unwilling to resolve disputes over the ownership of church properties for fear of offending GOC constituents. After passage of the 2011 amendment to the Civil Code of Georgia on registration of religious organizations, the government announced the creation of a joint government-GOC commission to monitor property transfers and the determination of cultural monuments of religious significance in accordance with the constitutional agreement. The commission included no representatives of minority religions. There is no official mechanism which mediates property disputes among the GOC, minority religions, and the government. NGOs and members of religious minority groups were also concerned about the maintenance of churches whose title was held by government entities while ownership remained in dispute. Many of the properties were not being maintained and were falling into disrepair.
The AAC’s main concern remained the return of five churches in Tbilisi and one in Akhaltsikhe, all claimed by both the AAC and GOC. However, the status of at least 30 other churches claimed by the AAC remained in dispute. The RCC claimed five churches which were given to the GOC after dissolution of the Soviet Union. The Jewish congregation and Muslim community also claimed mosques or synagogues which were considered cultural heritage sites and owned by the government.
The Ministry of Culture allocated 9,895 lari ($6,925) for renovation of a disputed church building, Mughni Surb Gevorg, claimed by the AAC which collapsed in 2009. Although the 2010 restoration planning project for the church was completed during the year, the AAC reported no further action was taken on the church’s restoration. The Ministry of Culture spent 38,900 lari ($23,200) for preliminary documentation for restorative works on two other churches claimed by the AAC during the year.
A former mosque located in the village of Mukhaestate in the Kobuleti region was demolished in 2010 and a new police building was constructed in its place, while another former mosque in the town of Kobuleti was used as a film studio. In the Adigeni district, there were approximately seven inactive mosques built by Meskhetian Muslims deported during the Stalin era which were being used to keep cattle. According to the NGO Toleranti, the small Muslim community (composed mostly of migrants from Adjara) was not able to reclaim those mosques but used other active mosques in the region.
Restoration continued on GOC churches previously returned, in part through government subsidies on the grounds that the buildings were national cultural heritage sites. The government provided subsidies for the maintenance and preservation of mosques on similar grounds. Other minority religious groups claimed the government did not provide funding on a neutral and equitable basis. During the year, the Ministry of Culture provided 3.5 million lari ($2.1 million) for the restoration of religious buildings on cultural heritage sites and claimed 48.6 percent of the funding, or 1.7 million lari ($1.04 million), was spent on buildings claimed by minority religions.
Passage of the religious registration amendment permitted improvements on property issues in some areas. Several properties not claimed by more than one confession nor considered cultural heritage sites were in the process of being reregistered. Other properties owned by the government as cultural heritage sites were leased to their respective congregations.
During the year, several churches, mosques, and meeting halls were in the process of being reregistered to minority religions, including groups which had successfully registered under the new amendment as legal entities of public law. Representatives from the Muslim community reported most mosques were in the process of being reregistered under the Administration of All Muslims of Georgia, but none of the registrations had been completed at year’s end. Six churches were in the process of being reregistered to the RCC.
At the end of the year, three branches of the RCC, the Administration of All Muslims of Georgia, Lutherans, Yezids, and one Jewish organization had registered as legal entities of public law. Other minority religions which had not registered at the end of the year included the AAC, Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other Jewish organizations.
Both synagogues in Tbilisi remained state property. One newly renovated synagogue continued to be leased to the community for the symbolic price of one lari ($.60) per month. A Catholic church in Rabati, in the Akhaltsikhe region, had not been returned to the RCC by the end of the year, but continued to be leased for a symbolic price for the next 100 years.
Property issues related to issuance of construction and occupation permits improved during the year. Construction permits for two new mosques in Marneuli and restoration of one mosque in Gardabani were issued during the year. The Jehovah’s Witnesses were issued two permits. In contrast to 2010, there was only one reported difficulty with a construction permit during the year. In February the Jehovah’s Witnesses requested the renewal of a construction permit in Signaghi previously issued in 2009 that had expired. At the end of the year, the permit had not been issued and no reason for the delay was given. However, the Jehovah’s Witnesses noted that during the year they began reregistering buildings under the name of the organization rather than that of a private individual because they felt the previous issues with permit delays had been resolved. The RCC, the AAC, and several Protestant denominations reported that issues in 2010 regarding construction permits were resolved during the year.
Prior to December legislation allowing alternative service for reserve military duty, minority religions reported 10 cases for which exemption or alternative service for reserve military service was not granted. Alternative service was already permitted in place of compulsory active military duty. In cases in which alternative service was granted for active military duty, there were no reports of problems getting alternate service work plans approved by the Ministry of Labor; however, the Ministry of Defense denied the initial requests for exemptions as well as follow up appeals in several requests for alternatives to reserve military duty. The Seventh-day Adventists reported four members of their community were fined 500 lari ($301) each for not meeting the mandatory reserve service requirement. Jehovah’s Witnesses reported five members were fined. The Jewish community reported one member was initially denied alternative service, but later granted alternative service by the end of the year. Appeals were pending in three of the Jehovah’s Witnesses cases. Jehovah’s Witnesses leaders reported that after the December ruling, the Tbilisi mayor’s office reassured them that their two pending requests for alternative service would be granted.
The PDO reported continuing problems with teachers reinforcing Orthodox theology through religion courses, classroom prayer, and the display of icons and other religious symbols in schools.
Members of minority religions reported several cases of high school religion history courses being taught as Orthodox catechism courses. The PDO received complaints from several religious minority families that some schools displayed Georgian Orthodox religious objects in schools. A December 2010 letter addressed to the Ministry of Education from the PDO requesting such objects be removed received no response. Although the Ministry of Education has a General Inspection Department to deal with complaints of inappropriate teacher behavior, including violations of the religious freedom of students, it reportedly did not respond to such complaints.
There were no official reports made to the PDO that public school teachers or local Orthodox priests had criticized minority religious groups, interfaith marriages, or Roman Catholic and Protestant students. However, representatives from non-GOC confessions and the PDO’s Tolerance Center continued to believe that such problems persisted despite the lack of documentation of official complaints.
School staff assumed a child was Orthodox Christian unless teachers were informed otherwise. Some members of religious minority groups remarked that parents found the school environment better for their children if their household did not announce its religious affiliation in its community.
The Ministry of Corrections and Legal Assistance took steps during the year to make access to penitentiary institutions equitable for representatives of all religious organizations and to provide for religious worship by inmates of all confessions. Clergy of minority confessions reported substantial improvements as a result of a December 2010 order that guaranteed the right of religious worship to prisoners and detainees, including the right to have a space for worship, the right to meet with clergy of any confession, and the right to retain religious objects. No clergy of any religious organization reported problems in visiting prisons this year.
Most prisons are equipped with Georgian Orthodox chapels; however, there are no specific nondenominational areas for worship. Representatives from religious minority confessions complained that prisoners of minority faiths were not given adequate areas within penitentiaries to practice their religious beliefs. According to Muslim leaders, during the Muslim holy day of Bairam, Muslim prisoners were kept in general cells with other inmates, making worship impossible. Both the public defender’s staff and the Ministry of Corrections and Legal Assistance reported they were working to find a solution. Members of the Jewish and Muslim communities also reported kosher and halal dietary accommodations were not made for their members. Several minority religions reported that GOC priests actively proselytized in prisons.
The PDO reported that religious minorities lodged six complaints of both governmental and societal violations against their religious rights during the year. Police were quick to respond to most incidents of abuse.
The occupied territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia remained outside the control of the central government, and reliable information from those regions was difficult to obtain. A 1995 decree issued by the de facto Abkhaz leader that banned Jehovah’s Witnesses in the region remained in effect. Jehovah’s Witnesses leaders in undisputed Georgia did not possess current information regarding the situation in Abkhazia.
Baptists, Lutherans, and Roman Catholics reported that they were allowed to operate in Abkhazia. The GOC reported that it was unable to do so, and the two branches of the Abkhaz Orthodox church do not recognize GOC authority. The GOC and government officials alleged that the de facto Abkhaz authorities carried out restoration work on churches historically claimed by the GOC that eliminated Georgian architectural elements. The GOC and government officials alleged that restoration work on the Bedia monastery destroyed a historic Georgian fresco, and renovations to the Ilori Church covered Georgian inscriptions with paint and altered unique Georgian architectural elements.
The Christian Orthodox Church in South Ossetia was the primary religious organization and did not recognize GOC authority. In South Ossetia, GOC adherents remained unable to hold services in GOC churches, located near the ethnic Georgian villages of Nuli, Eredvi, Monasteri, and Gera, because these areas were under the control of de facto South Ossetian authorities. Individuals living outside Abkhazia and South Ossetia faced difficulties crossing the administrative boundaries and were therefore limited in their ability to visit the gravesites of family members inside the territories, especially in South Ossetia. Some visits were allowed on an inconsistent basis, particularly on religious holidays.
During his speech on International Tolerance Day on November 24, Public Defender Giorgi Tugushi highlighted ongoing problems, including anti-Armenian statements made by Orthodox clergy, politicians and other individuals after passage of the religious registration law and which were subsequently disseminated in the media; the unresolved ownership status of many churches confiscated from various religious communities during the Soviet period; an unequal tax regime which favors the GOC; and continuing challenges to separation of church and state in public schools. However, Tugushi also highlighted areas of improvement, including passage of the July religious registration amendment, an overall decrease in religious discrimination, improved access to prison visits by clergy of minority religions, and increased attention to the importance of religious and ethnic minorities by authorities of the Georgian government.