There were reports of forced religious conversion and at least one incident of violence between police and religious protesters. The government promised to provide restitution to victims of police violence in earlier years following a ruling by the ECHR. The government instituted a strategy and implemented programs in support of religious minorities, but received criticism from religious groups and NGOs. The government failed to return or maintain property claimed by minority religious groups currently held by government entities. Muslim and Jewish groups, as well as the Catholic, Evangelical, Baptist, and Armenian Orthodox Churches criticized government policies in this regard. There were also complaints the government inadequately addressed acts of religious intolerance and separation of state and church in public schools.
The Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights issued a report in May stating it had received accounts of schools indoctrinating and forcing children belonging to other religions, mainly Muslims from Adjara, to convert to Orthodox Christianity. There was also a report of a teacher physically and verbally abusing a student not adhering to the Orthodox faith.
In October a dispute over a building that once operated as a mosque led to a protest and altercation between protesters and police in Mokhe, Adigeni municipality of Samtskhe-Javakheti. Local authorities had selected the location, claimed by both the Muslim and Christian communities in the village, as a site for a new community center and library. NGOs reported authorities used unnecessary force against protesters, and criticized the lack of a government policy regarding restitution of property rights for religious buildings. Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili called the violence in Mokhe “unacceptable” and charged the State Agency on Religious Affairs with making a recommendation for resolving the issue. In December the state agency established a special commission to clarify the history of the property. According to Zaza Vashakmadze, head of the state agency, the commission would include 11 members representing Orthodox Christians, Muslims, the government’s Monument Protection Agency, and regional and local governments. At year’s end, the commission had not reached a decision regarding the property, and construction at the site remained suspended.
In practice, the Public Registry registered all organizations that requested registration. By year’s end, the government had registered 52 minority religious groups as legal entities under public law, including three branches of the Catholic Church, four Muslim groups, Lutherans, Yezidis, two Jewish groups, the AAC, and Evangelical Baptists.
The PDO’s Tolerance Center reported members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses filed 65 complaints of government and societal infringements of their rights, including verbal and physical abuse, obstruction of religious services, difficulties related to construction permits, and damage and vandalism of properties. According to TDI, the number of offenses in the first five months of 2014 almost equaled the total from 2013, a year which had a fourfold increase compared to 2012.
The PGO initiated 11 criminal investigations of incidents involving religious intolerance against Jehovah’s Witnesses. The PGO also investigated four cases regarding illegal interference with the performance of religious rites and two in connection with physical assault. Three individuals were found guilty of persecution on the basis of religion, one of whom was sentenced to two years of conditional imprisonment. In addition, the PGO initiated investigations into incidents of reported damage to property belonging to Jehovah’s Witnesses.
NGOs criticized the government for failing to carry out effective investigations in previous cases motivated by religious hatred. The public defender’s 2013 annual report, released in 2014, stated the reason for the display of intolerance towards Muslims was the “permissive” attitude towards such crimes suggested by the stipulations of the criminal code, a similar attitude on the part of state authorities, as well as a sense of impunity and, in some cases bias, on the part of offenders.
On October 7, the ECHR ruled government authorities in 2000-2001 had created a climate encouraging widespread religiously-motivated violence against Jehovah’s Witnesses and failed to take the necessary measures to ensure that Jehovah’s Witnesses were able to exercise their right to freedom of religion. This violence included a case in 2000 in which masked policemen beat approximately 50 worshippers during a religious assembly in Zugdidi, and burned down religious buildings belonging to group. Following the ECHR ruling, the government released a statement promising to provide restitution to victims, as laid out in the ECHR judgment, and underlined its commitment to the ECHR and its international obligations.
In accord with a resolution passed by parliament on January 27 allowing the government to compensate Islamic, Jewish, Roman Catholic, and Armenian Apostolic religious organizations registered as LEPLs for “the material and moral damages inflicted upon them during the Soviet period,” on March 13 the State Agency on Religious Affairs was instructed to disburse 3.5 million lari ($1.9 million) in coordination with the Ministry of Finance. In December the government reduced the figure to approximately 1.7 million lari ($909,000) due to insufficient funds in the budget. According to the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) , they received 200,000 lari ($107,000) from the government, the Muslim community received approximately 1 million lari ($535,000), the AAC approximately 300,000 lari ($160,000), and the Jewish community approximately 130,000 lari ($70,000).
Religious organizations and NGOs questioned the process by which the government chose the four religious groups eligible to receive funds for these damages and criticized the exclusion of other faiths. The RCC initially declined to accept the funding until the denominations not named in the resolution received compensation as well, but later accepted the funds when the State Agency on Religious Affairs promised two other denominations would receive funds in 2015.
Until this decision, the GOC had been the only religious group with a line item in the government’s annual budget. During the year the GOC received 25 million lari ($13.4 million) in government funds.
A joint government-GOC commission monitored property transfers and determined which cultural monuments were of religious significance, while the State Agency on Religious Affairs issued non-binding recommendations. No religious minority groups were represented on the commission.
The government continued to subsidize the restoration of certain religious properties considered national cultural heritage sites, which were appropriated by the state during the Soviet era and returned to their prior owners. The Ministry of Culture and Protection of Monuments provided 1,447,338 lari ($774,000) during the year for the restoration of religious buildings on cultural heritage sites. Several minority religious groups said the government did not provide such funding on an equitable basis. According to the Ministry of Culture and Protection of Monuments, the government began rehabilitating an Islamic mausoleum and spent 90,144 lari ($48,000) on non-Orthodox churches, including 20,000 lari ($11,000) on monitoring the conditions of Armenian and Catholic churches, and 70,144 lari ($38,000) on the reinforcement of Surb Nshan Church in Tbilisi.
Officials from the RCC and the AAC said property disputes were not resolved in a transparent legal process and favored the GOC. At the end of the year the RCC reported the Rustavi municipality had refused to provide the RCC with a construction permit to build a church. The AAC requested restitution of five churches in Tbilisi and one in Akhaltsikhe, all of which were currently registered as state property and which were claimed by both the AAC and the GOC. In addition, 30 other churches claimed by the AAC, as well as five churches claimed by the RCC but given to the GOC after dissolution of the Soviet Union, were also in dispute.
The Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights reported concerns about the maintenance of church properties claimed by the AAC, and stated that many of them had fallen into disrepair. On September 19, the roof of the Surb Minas Church in Tbilisi collapsed. According to the AAC, representatives of the State Agency on Religious Affairs said the state would build a new roof for the church in 2015.
The Jewish community disputed the government’s ownership of a number of synagogues registered as cultural heritage sites. Both synagogues in Tbilisi officially remained state property. Representatives of the Jewish community stated synagogues in Oni, Kutaisi, and Akhaltsikhe Rabat territory required urgent restoration.
The Muslim community disputed the government’s ownership of a number of mosques in Kvemo Kartli, Adigeni, and Adjara. In Batumi, Muslim community leaders and local and central government authorities were unable to reach a mutually-agreeable solution to address overcrowding in the Batumi mosque, which was state-owned property.
According to the PDO, non-Orthodox Christian churches faced government resistance when registering property rights for places of worship, and it blamed the influence of the GOC for government officials’ resistance. In January the Ministry of Economy and Sustainable Development denied the Evangelical Protestant Church in Gori its request to purchase a building where it operated, claiming that as a LEPL, the church could only purchase land if the government’s share of the land was less than 25 percent, a requirement waived for the GOC.
On June 4, the municipality council of Terjola suspended a construction permit for the Jehovah’s Witnesses to build a Kingdom Hall. The Jehovah’s Witnesses community reported this suspension was the result of pressure from local GOC clergy and parishioners, and said following the suspension Kakha Makaridze, Deacon Spiridon Tskipurishvili, Temur Gamezardashvili, and others from the area “made threats and acts of aggression” against the community.
The Evangelical Baptist Church was able to register new property because it registered as a legal entity in 2012; however, the status of property built before 2012 remained in dispute.
The PDO continued to receive complaints regarding religious discrimination in schools from the Muslim community, the AAC, the Pentecostal Church, the Seventh-day Adventists, and the Georgian Protestant Church, as well as reports of multiple cases where teachers promoted GOC theology through religion courses, classroom prayer, and the display of icons and other religious symbols in schools. Members of minority religious groups, including Evangelical Baptists and Muslims, reported several cases of GOC catechism courses being taught as high school religious history courses. Although the Ministry of Education’s general inspection department was responsible for dealing with complaints of inappropriate teacher behavior, leaders of minority religious groups stated families refrained from reporting problems due to concerns about the department’s effectiveness and fears of retribution against their children.
The government adopted a National Strategy for the Protection of Human Rights for 2014-2020, which prioritized freedom of religion and the protection of religious minorities. The government also approved a corresponding 2014-2016 action plan, which outlined tasks to be implemented by relevant government bodies to carry out its strategy. Objectives included establishing legislative guarantees against the discrimination of religious groups, prevention and effective investigation of crimes motivated by religious hatred and intolerance, reinforcement of the principle of secularism in the civil service, compensation for damages inflicted upon religious organizations, promotion of religious equality through the education system, and raising public awareness and levels of tolerance.
In February the government established the State Agency on Religious Affairs to coordinate with the prime minister on religious policy matters such as education, property, and funding. The TDI, in its Study of Religious Discrimination and Constitutional Secularism released during the year, said the state had founded the state agency without consulting a wide range of religious organizations, the public defender, or NGOs focused on protecting religious minorities’ rights. NGOs and religious groups criticized the state agency for not hiring religious minorities and for a lack of transparency in its decision making processes.
Most prisons had GOC chapels but no specific nondenominational areas for worship.
High-level government recognition of minority religious celebrations continued. Prime Minister Garibashvili sent an Easter message to Catholics and hosted Muslim leaders at an iftar during Ramadan. On October 4, he joined Muslims for a celebration at the central mosque in Tbilisi on the Eid al-Adha holiday.
The PDO’s Tolerance Center; the Live, Educate to be Aware International Foundation; and the Council of Jewish Women in Georgia organized an event supported by the United Nations Association of Georgia for International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which was attended by representatives from state institutions, including President Margvelashvili.
On October 20, Prime Minister Garibashvili, former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, Minister of Culture Mikheil Giorgadze, and Tbilisi Mayor Davit Narmania helped open the David Baazov Museum of History of Georgian Jews after 60 years of inactivity.
On December 16, Prime Minister Garibashvili lit the first candle of Hanukkah at the main Synagogue in Tbilisi. In his speech, he extended well wishes to the Jewish community on the holiday and noted “the year marked 26 centuries of friendship between Georgians and Jews.”