NGOs and minority religious denominations expressed concern over what they stated was the government’s ineffective investigation of crimes motivated by religious hatred, its actions restricting religious expression and construction or restitution of buildings used for religious purposes, and its favoritism towards the GOC. They also cited SARI’s unclear mandate and authority and its lack of procedures for allocating funds and property. The government prosecuted some religiously motivated crimes and returned some property claimed by minority religious groups that had been held by government entities, while not returning others. NGOs Human Rights Education and Monitoring Centre (EMC) and Tolerance and Diversity Institute (TDI) said the government inadequately addressed acts of religious intolerance and separation of state and church in public schools.
The PGO investigated 20 cases involving alleged crimes committed on the basis of religious intolerance, of which 18 concerned acts against the Jehovah’s Witnesses and two against the Muslim community. The 20 cases involved five of beatings, one of illegal interference with the performance of religious rites, five of persecution, seven of damage or destruction of property, one of theft, and one of a threat to damage health or property. According to the PGO, five of the 20 cases, all involving the Jehovah’s Witnesses, led to prosecutions and convictions, with two individuals fined and three sentenced to community service; seven cases were terminated without further action due to lack of evidence; and eight investigations remained pending at year’s end. The government also concluded three investigations it began in 2014, resulting in the prosecution and conviction of three defendants for their acts against Jehovah’s Witnesses. Of the three defendants, two were fined and one was sentenced to a year of imprisonment.
EMC and TDI criticized the government for failing to carry out effective investigations in previous cases they said were motivated by religious hatred. The PDO’s annual report stated the ineffective investigation of probable crimes committed on religious grounds and impunity remained a problem. The report referred broadly to “individuals who participated in acts violating the rights of Muslims in various regions of Georgia in 2012-2014.”
According to NAPR, it accepted all registration applications religious organizations submitted during the year but it did not specify how many. SARI reported that at year’s end, a total of 39 religious organizations were registered as LEPLs and “dozens” of religious organizations as nonprofit organizations.
As of December Rustavi municipality had not granted the RCC a permit to build a church; the RCC had been attempting to obtain such a permit for two years. The RCC reported it would take the issue to court.
SARI led the Recommendatory Commission on the Study of Property and Financial Issues of Religious Organizations, which issued nonbinding recommendations on property issues of religious organizations. TDI reported the commission only issued recommendations on transferring to religious organizations properties in state ownership that were not in dispute between two or more religious groups. According to the National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry, during the year, the government transferred the ownership of nine of the 15 synagogues in the country to the Jewish community.
According to the Tolerance Center, non-GOC churches faced government resistance when attempting to obtain construction permits for churches, and it attributed government officials’ resistance to general societal bias in favor of the GOC. TDI reported protests from local GOC parishioners played a major role in influencing the municipalities’ decisions. On March 19, the Zestaponi district court ordered the municipality council of Terjola to re-issue a suspended construction permit for the Jehovah’s Witnesses to build a kingdom hall. According to EMC, the municipality did not carry out the court’s decision and delayed the process. As of December construction of the hall remained pending.
Officials from the RCC and the AAC said property disputes involving the GOC were not resolved in a transparent legal process and generally favored the GOC. The AAC requested restitution of five churches in Tbilisi and one in Akhaltsikhe, all of which were registered as state property and claimed by both the AAC and the GOC. Thirty 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 AAC complained about the deteriorating physical conditions of churches in dispute and noted that, unlike other groups, no properties had been transferred to its community.
The Muslim community disputed the government’s ownership of some mosques in Kvemo Kartli, Adigeni, and Adjara. During the year, the government transferred the ownership of 70 mosques throughout the country to the All Muslims of All Georgia (AMAG) organization. Muslim community leaders and local and central government authorities were unable to reach a mutually agreeable solution to address overcrowding in the mosque in Batumi, which was state-owned property. Although the government purchased a building for the community there, which the AMAG opened as a residence for the mufti of west Georgia and to which it planned to add a madrassah, NGOs and independent Muslim community leaders said the building did not address overcrowding or the community’s longstanding request for permission to build a second mosque.
A consensus-based commission SARI established in December 2014 did not meet to study a controversial case involving a dispute over the ownership of an abandoned building used during the Soviet era as a storage space and library in the village of Mokhe in Samtskhe-Javakheti; the building was claimed by local Muslims as a 20th century mosque and by the GOC community as the site of a former church. The Tolerance Center, TDI, and EMC criticized the closed proceedings of the commission, which was presided over by SARI’s chairman and included members representing Orthodox Christians, Muslims, the Agency for Protection of Cultural Heritage, and regional and local governments. The Tolerance Center said SARI did not support the Muslim community’s request for several observers on the commission, including a member of the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia. It also reported the public defender was unable to participate. According to TDI, Muslim community representatives felt the government used the commission to “protract the process” and did not believe their interests would be taken into account in any decision. Although SARI reported the disputed building had the shape of a mosque, it stated it had “never functioned as a place of worship for Muslims.”
The government continued to subsidize the restoration of certain religious properties considered national cultural heritage sites. The Ministry of Culture and Protection of Monuments provided 1,500,000 lari ($626,000) during the year for the restoration of religious buildings on cultural heritage sites but did not provide a breakdown of how the money was spent. The ministry cited only one non-GOC project, an architectural survey, to which it gave 300 lari ($125).
The Tolerance Center, TDI, representatives from the Muslim community independent from AMAG, and the PDO complained about religious discrimination in schools. They reported cases where teachers promoted GOC theology through religion courses, classroom prayer, and the display of icons and other religious symbols in schools, despite prohibition of proselytization in the law. Although the Ministry of Education’s general inspection department was responsible for dealing with complaints of inappropriate teacher behavior, the Tolerance Center reported the families of minorities refrained from reporting problems due to concerns about the department’s effectiveness and fears of retribution against their children. According to SARI, there were no cases of religious discrimination reported in educational institutions during the year.
On October 15, the Caucasus Apostolic Administration of Latin Rite Catholics, the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia, the Georgian Muslims Union, the Pentecostal Church of Georgia, the Trans-Caucasian Union of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, the Word of Life Church of Georgia, the Holy Trinity Church, and the Church of Christ, represented by the Constitutional Law Clinic of Free University and with TDI acting as their legal representatives, filed a constitutional claim requesting equal tax status for all religious organizations. As of December the case remained pending.
The GOC received 25 million lari ($13.4 million) in government compensation. In accordance with a 2014 resolution 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,” SARI disbursed compensation funds totaling 3.5 million lari ($1.46 million) to religious groups in coordination with the Ministry of Finance. The Tolerance Center, TDI, and EMC questioned the criteria by which the government selected the four denominations eligible for reparations and criticized the exclusion of other faiths. EMC and the Pentecostals filed a claim in the constitutional court alleging the selection process was discriminatory. At year’s end, the claim remained pending. SARI reported the government was considering expanding the compensation to other religious organizations, although it did not specify which or how many organizations would be eligible. According to SARI, this compensation was “partial and of symbolic character,” and the government took into account denominations’ level of damage and “present day negative conditions” during the selection process.
SARI reported the government disbursed its compensation funds as follows: 2,200,000 lari ($917,000) to the Muslim community, represented by the AMAG; 400,000 lari ($167,000) to the RCC; 600,000 lari ($250,000) to the AAC; and 300,000 lari ($125,000) to the Jewish community. TDI and EMC, and some independent Muslim community leaders stated the government exerted direct influence over AMAG.
In February SARI published a draft strategy on religious policy, which stated the country must prevent external interference in its internal politics by neighboring countries attempting to influence its ethnic minority populations. EMC and TDI and religious groups criticized SARI for lack of transparency and said it was established to exert influence and control over religious communities for state security purposes. The Tolerance Center complained SARI did not have any ethnic or religious minorities serving on its staff and that the state had founded the agency without consulting a wide range of religious organizations, the PDO, or NGOs focused on protecting religious minorities’ rights.
NGOs expressed concern over the failure of the government’s 2015-2020 National Concept and Action Plan on Civic Equality and Integration to include religious minorities and freedom of religion as topics.
In a November report, the Norwegian Centre for Human Rights (NCHR), a research institute, expressed concern that SARI viewed its principal mission “not as promoting freedom of religion and belief on behalf of all Georgians, but as promoting particularly the financial and material interests of the GOC.” The NCHR expressed several other concerns, including: ambiguity in SARI’s mandate and authority; worry that SARI considered some religions “nontraditional” and favored some above others; and a lack of procedures for allocating funds and property to religious groups.
Most prisons had GOC chapels but no specific nondenominational areas for worship. According to SARI, Roman Catholic, AAC, Baptist, Muslim, and Jewish religious services were available upon request in the military and in prisons.
On June 18, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili published a statement marking the beginning of Ramadan. On September 2, the prime minister commemorated the 120th anniversary of the synagogue in Oni. On September 24, he visited Tbilisi Mosque, where he congratulated the Muslim community on the Kurban Bayrami (Eid al-Adha) holiday.