Planned funding scheme for religious groups is discriminatory

the opinion was published in DFWatch.net

by

Late January the Government of Georgia adopted a resolution which enables the financing of four traditional religious confessions: the Roman Catholic Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church, and Muslim and Jewish groups. Until now, the Georgian Orthodox Church was the only one receiving state funding [1]. This discriminatory policy has often been criticized by religious minorities and human rights groups.

Currently, there is no information available yet on how much money each confession will receive. Minister of Reintegration, Paata Zakareishvili, did say that about GEL 4.5 million will be proportionally distributed among the four.

delys_sarahAccording to the law, Georgia is not obliged to finance any religion, but the plan to allocate funds to these religions arose from the decision to compensate the material and moral damages they suffered under Soviet rule.

Georgian national legislation does not elaborate as to why the Orthodox Church receives this money, however, during political discussions it is always justified as compensation for damages during the Soviet Union.

Religious minority groups and human rights groups have often criticized the government for its discriminatory policy regarding state financing of the Orthodox Church.

Property restitution is not always possible and adequate payment of compensation can be an alternative to this. In order to implement a successful restitution programme, the government should bear the following considerations in mind.

First of all, the restitution process must be non-discriminatory. In this case, the decision was made without any consultations with representatives of the religious groups, the Public Defender or NGOs. The Patriarchate, however, supported the adopted resolution immediately which leads to the assumption that deliberations were indeed held with the Georgian Orthodox Church.

Additionally, other confessions such as the Lutheran Church and Pentecostals were also victims of the Soviet rule. Nevertheless, they remain without any recognition of suffered damages or state funding.

This non-inclusive approach to state funding for religious organisations leads to the creation of a hierarchy among the different religious denominations, which is legitimised through the government’s actions.

In order for a State to compensate the damages, this damages should be assessed. A specific person or group of persons who were deprived of something or discriminated on a specific occasion need to be identified. Also, the total amount of damages needs to be calculated.

The Georgian government did neither. The restitution plan does not involve any kind of method to determine the damage costs or the amount of remuneration. Instead, the lump sum will be divided among the four confessions based on the size of their respective parishes.

Second, legal procedures should be clear and simple. This was one of the issues already addressed in the 2012 International Religious Freedom Report on Georgia of the U.S. Department of State:

“Restitution of property confiscated during the communist regime remained a contentious issue for religious groups other than the Georgian Orthodox Church.” [2]

Representatives from the Roman Catholic Church and the Armenian Apostolic Church said that property disputes were not resolved in a transparent legal process, but on a case-by-case basis. During this process claims of the Georgian Orthodox Church were unmistakably favoured.

In conclusion, and from a legal viewpoint, we cannot speak of a “restitution programme” as such. The new funding scheme only consists of direct financing and cannot be further away from the concept of compensation for suffered losses under a totalitarian regime.

Moreover, the presented funding scheme is discriminating and infringes the autonomy of religious organisations. The allocated budget will be distributed among the four confessions this year, but in the resolution there is no mention of what will happen in the following years.

Four representatives, one in each organisation, were chosen by the government to receive their share of the money. This tendency to interfere with the religious communities’ autonomy has already led to the Muslim community in Georgia openly expressing its concerns [3].

The entire issue questions the role of the State Agency on Religious Affairs which was established in response to the recent criticism towards government policy. The Agency was set up exactly with the purpose of assessing and addressing the existing challenges in upholding the right to freedom of religion, yet, the government continues to make decisions which discriminate against religious minorities.

Nevertheless, the establishment of a State Agency in response to criticism from civil society is unprecedented in Georgia and should be seen as an important step forward to a democratic state where society can hold the government accountable for its actions.

Sarah Delys
Criminologist working at Human Rights Education and Monitoring Center

 

Notes:

1. According to TI Georgia, the Georgian Orthodox Church received up to USD 120 million by 2013 of public money. The main source of income is funding from several state institutions, like the state budget and the state’s reserve funds.
2. U.S. Department of State, International Religious Freedom Report for 2012.http://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/irf/religiousfreedom/index.htm?year=2012&dlid=208316
3. Tariel Nakaidze, head of the Georgian Muslim’s Union, spoke of these recent developments early this year on the talk show “Discussing Religion” aired on Tabula TV. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8CwCVc6TroE