The assessment of the Strategy for the Development of Religious Policy of the State of Georgia

LEPL State Agency for Religious Issues (hereinafter “the Agency”), which was created by the Government of Georgia to carry out information-gathering, research, scholarly/educational, and recommendation activities for the Government and Prime Minister of Georgia,  has posted the document entitled The Strategy for the Development of Religious Policy of the State of Georgia on its website.

 
The official website of the Agency does not contain information about the legal nature and issuer of the document. At the same time, according to the information provided by a representative of the Agency, the aforementioned document is a draft strategy and is supposed to reflect the observations of stakeholders before it is approved, though it is unclear who is to approve the document.

It should be noted that the process of development of the document was not open and transparent; according to the information at our disposal, it did not involve a large part of the NGOs and religious organizations that work in the relevant area.

a) Against the background of infringement of the rights of minorities at the expense of preferential attitude to the dominant religious group, the document says that in the course of years “the scope of the problem narrowed and it only envisaged the protection of the rights of religious minorities”. Proceeding from this, instead of trying to make the protection of minority rights a pressing issue, the authors of the document put an emphasis on “security” rather than “rights”: “The religious policy of the State should be formulated in view of the discourse on internal and external security”.

b) In the text of the document, we come across the danger of differentiation and hierarchization of religious minorities into major and non-major, traditional and non-traditional groups. For instance, the document diminishes the significance of a part of religious associations in the cultural life of Georgia in the following way: “It is the major and traditional religions existing in Georgia, together with religious minorities and individuals, that can create particular benefit for the public”. We believe that dividing religious denominations into major and non-major, traditional and non-traditional groups and giving a priority to one group only is going to contribute to stigmatization and marginalization of a part of religious associations and deteriorate the existing discriminatory and intolerant environment.

c) The Strategy names determining the form of legitimate participation of the State in the regulation of religion as one of the aims of the document.

As already noted, the State often responds inadequately to cases of persecution and discrimination of religious minorities and displays a biased attitude in favor of the majority. Against such background, the Strategy talks about additional legislative regulation of the activity of religious organizations, determining different legal statuses for them, and legal regulation of financial and property issues according to their status, which may be perceived as the State’s desire to intervene in the autonomy of religious associations, create additional hierarchical levels, and/or further deepen the unequal environment.

d) The procedure of registration of religious associations established by the legislative changes made in 2011, which was definitely a step forward towards ensuring freedom of choice of the organizational-legal form of religious associations and creating an environment of equal rights, comes under question as a result of the following postulate proposed in the Strategy: “The legal statuses of religious associations may be determined in such a way that the legal status proceeds directly from the objective condition of the association, which, in its turn, does not rule out certain differentiation”.

e)  As made clear by the Strategy, the State aims at adopting a law on religion that will create a special legislative framework and determine the concept and content of the “religious association”; regulate the activities of religious associations; determine the procedure of registration, legal statuses, rights and obligations, and rules of procedure of religious associations; regulate property and financial issues, as well as issues of religion and education; etc. In the document, this aim is substantiated by the argument that “the existing norms either have private character and fail to encompass the full spectrum of rights and relations or are scattered without systematization and fail to create a unified legislation”.

In actual fact, the analysis of the state practice in terms of legislative framework and protection of freedom of religion shows that the acute problems of religious minorities are mainly caused not by a lack of systematization of legislative acts but by discriminatory enforcement of these acts. The discrimination is manifested in the behavior and attitudes of public officials in different areas, such as issuance of construction permits, administration of criminal and administrative justice in regard to offences motivated by religious intolerance, restoration of rights on the property, especially cult buildings, confiscated during the Soviet period, observance of religious neutrality in educational institutions, etc.[1]

Adopting a law on religion contains high risks of unjustified regulation of religious activity, interference in the autonomy of religious organizations, and their hierarchization.

f) In terms of prevention of discrimination and observance of the principles of secularism, there are also deficiencies in the Georgian legislation (the legislation on taxation and customs, as well as on general and higher education; the Law on State Property; the procedure of compensation of damage inflicted to religious associations during the Soviet period; for instance, the Tax Code, which in several cases envisages different taxation only for the Patriarchate of Georgia, creates an unequal  and discriminatory environment for religious associations).[2]Proceeding from this, the state policy should be oriented at eradicating these deficiencies and creating an environment of equal rights rather than adopting new legislative regulations.

g) The Strategy reveals that the State is planning to develop a procedure of construction and ownership of cult/religious buildings and structures, including a procedure of construction and ownership of such structures by foreign countries on the territory of Georgia. We believe that there is no need to introduce special norms regulating the construction of religious buildings and structures, because it will create additional barriers for religious associations. This is all the more so that religious minorities talk about a discriminatory attitude and artificial bureaucratic obstacles that they face in this respect from the respective administrative bodies.

h) We also find problematic the part of the text which talks about the procedure of paying a compensation to religious associations for the material and moral damage they incurred under the Soviet regime: “Despite the fact that the Georgian legislation does not envisage a legal obligation to compensate religious associations for the material and moral damage they incurred under the Soviet totalitarian regime, the State of Georgia, proceeding from the principle of justice and considering the current property and financial needs of the religious associations, shall create a mechanism of providing a symbolic compensation to the religious associations that suffered damage (whose exact amount is not known) under the Soviet totalitarian regime.”

The entry saying that the Georgian legislation does not envisage a legal obligation to compensate for the material and moral damage incurred by religious associations under the Soviet totalitarian regime does not correspond with the reality, because, in accordance with Article 11 of the Constitutional Agreement concluded between the State of Georgia and the Apostolic Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Georgia, “The State confirms that the Church suffered material and moral damage in the 19-20th centuries (especially in the years 1921-1990), when the country was deprived of state independence. As the factual owner of the confiscated property, it shall take the obligation to provide a partial compensation for the material damage (Resolution 183 of the Council of Ministers of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Georgia, 12/04/1990)”.

It should be noted that in 2014 the amount of compensation for damage to be paid to religious associations was set at GEL 1,750,000 (Ordinance No. 1942 of the Government of Georgia, 30/10/2014), while in 2015 it was set at GEL 3,500,000 (the Law of Georgia on the State Budget of Georgia for 2015, 12/12/2014). In 2014, the religious associations received the following sums: the Muslim Community of Georgia – GEL 1,100,000, the Judaic Community – GEL 150,000, the Roman Catholic Community – GEL 200,000, and the Armenian Apostolic Christian Community – GEL 300,000.

We believe that the aforementioned model of funding is discriminatory, because it does not include all the religious associations that suffered damage under the Soviet totalitarian regime. In addition, the Resolution does not envisage a method of calculating the damage; it also fails to provide for objective and just criteria on the basis of which the amount and scale of the damage and the method and terms of compensation are to be determined.

Taking the aforementioned into account, what is actually taking place is the practice of direct funding of religious associations selected as a result of an unclear and vague process instead of compensation of damage incurred during the Soviet period, which may be motivated by the interest to control the religious associations and increase the State’s influence on them, on the one hand, and aim at legitimizing the process of direct transfer of indeterminable and unsubstantiated amounts of budget funds to the Patriarchate of Georgia that has been taking place for years, on the other hand.[3] Therefore, the Resolution on compensation of the damage is directed at maintaining the unequal environment rather than eliminating unequal treatment.[4]

i) The Strategy also talks about the introduction of the “subject of religion” in public schools. In general, teaching religion in school should contribute to raising pupils’ awareness and encouraging a tolerant attitude to differing religious identities. However, considering the Georgian context, the dominant role of the Orthodox Church, and the poor qualification of teachers, we believe that the initiative of teaching religion in public schools contains a danger at this stage.

Proselytism, taking pupils to attend public worship in Orthodox churches on the initiative of school administrations and teachers, and collective prayers are frequent in public schools; religious symbols have been displayed for non-academic purposes and prayer corners have been arranged; it has become an established practice for administrations to invite clergymen to schools to preach and perform religious rites (blessing, consecration, public prayer); teachers and pupils treat religious minorities derogatively; and there have been cases of indoctrination and attempts to baptize pupils of differing denominations in the Orthodox tradition.

Taking into account the scarcity of qualified academic staff and the existing discriminatory environment, it is expected that teaching religion in schools will legitimize proselytism, indoctrination, and the existing discriminatory environment.

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In conclusion, the analysis of the document shows that the Strategy for the Development of Religious Policy that was prepared by the Agency fails to meet the challenges of religious organizations which deprive them of the possibility to enjoy their rights and liberties under equal and safe conditions, and, under such circumstances, it tries to shift the settlement of issues related to freedom of religion from the legal to the political dimension. It should be noted that the Strategy may be aimed at strengthening the mechanisms of control over religious minorities and restricting the scope of their activities instead of resolving the problems that the religious associations of Georgia have faced for years.

The spirit of the Strategy reveals the Agency’s interest to hierarchize religious organizations, control them, and interfere in their autonomy, which contradicts the principles of secularism, equality, and the constitutional state. It should also be taken into account that Muslim clergymen talk openly about the gross interference of the Agency in the autonomy of the Muslim organizations. They argue that at present the State appoints and dismisses the spiritual leaders of the Muslim Community.

It should be noted that the Agency’s practical activities[5] already contain dangers of violation of the aforementioned constitutional principles, and, in fact, the Agency even implements the attitudes indicated in the Strategy.

Taking all the aforementioned into account, we call upon the Government of Georgia to realize the dangers contained in the Strategy that was developed by the Agency through a closed process and not to share the views and positions presented in the document.

Georgian Democracy Initiative (GDI)

Tolerance and Diversity Institute (TDI)

Identoba

Media Development Foundation (MDF)

Georgian Young Lawyers Association (GYLA)

Human Rights Education and Monitoring Center (EMC)

Union “Sapari”


[1] See the research papers of the Tolerance and Diversity Institute (TDI): “A Study of Religious Discrimination and Constitutional Secularism in Georgia”, 2014. Accessible in Georgian at: http://bit.ly/19AjTHk; “A Study of the Needs of Religious Associations in Georgia”, 2014. Accessible in Georgian at: http://bit.ly/1CKPxfu;

[2] See the research paper of the Georgian Democracy Initiative “Prohibition of Discrimination (Analysis of the Legislation and Practice of Georgia)”, 2014, p. 27. Accessible in Georgian at: http://gdi.ge/uploads/other/0/188.pdf

[4] In this regard, see the legal opinion prepared by the Human Rights Education and Monitoring Center. Accessible in Georgian at: http://bit.ly/1wTcDRq

[5] See the Report of the State Agency for Religious Issues for June-December 2014. Accessible in Georgian at:    http://religion.geo.gov.ge/geo/document/religiis-sakitxta-saxelmtsifo-saagentos-angarishi