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US Report: Religious freedom in Georgia

By Messenger Staff
Thursday, August 2
The US State Department has released their International Religious Freedom Report for 2011 which covers 199 countries including Georgia.

The report reads that the Georgian Government demonstrated a trend toward the improvement in respect for and protection of the right to religious freedom. “The constitution and other laws and policies protect religious freedom. The constitution recognizes the special role of the GOC in the country’s history but also stipulates the independence of church from state. The law specifically provides for freedom of religious belief, denomination, and conscience, including the right to choose and change any religious denomination at will.”

According to the report there have been improvements– including an amendment which allowed minority religious confessions to register as entities of public law; new legislation which allowed members of minority faiths to conscientiously object to reserve military service, and the implementation of a 2010 policy that allowed the clergy of minority faiths to visit inmates in prison. However, there were reports of continuing concerns, including the lack of action by government entities in addressing property restitution of disputed properties, privileged legal and tax status for the Georgian Orthodox Church (GOC), and inadequate separation of church and state in public schools. Also, there were reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice. Cases reported included religious persecution, interference with the performance of religious rites, and reports of physical assault, harassment, and vandalism.

In the report, the authors have emphasized attention on learning religion at public schools. By law, Orthodox teaching may take place only after school hours and cannot be controlled by the school or teachers. The Public Defender’s Office (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.

Another point the report highlights is the condition of religious minorities in the penitentiary systems. The report reads that 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.

Special attention is paid to the situation in the occupied territories of Georgia in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Authors say that as those two regions are outside of the control of the Georgian government, gaining reliable information was not easy. Reportedly, the Orthodox Church cannot operate in Abkhazia although Baptists, Lutherans, and Roman Catholics reported that they were allowed.

“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,” report says.

As for the situation 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,” it says.

In the end, the report reiterates that the U.S. embassy promotes religious freedom as a fundamental human right and essential element of democracy and has engaged with religious communities from all faiths.

“Embassy officials, including the ambassador, regularly met with representatives of parliament, religious groups and leaders, and NGOs concerned with religious freedom. The embassy promoted religious freedom and tolerance through the use of public diplomacy, including speeches and press interviews by senior U.S. government officials and embassy representatives, and made public statements in support of the passage of the religious amendment allowing minority faiths to register as entities of public law.”