I t is more than fifty years now that Jehovah’s Witnesses have been prosthelytizing in Georgia. From the capital city to mountainous villages, these missionaries dressed in classic attire and carrying briefcases can be seen walking door-to-door. From the beginning, Georgian society has been extremely intolerant of them. Just about everyone I have ever asked for directions to the Jehovah’s Witnesses Kingdom Hall in Tbilisi’s Varketili district has cast suspicious glances my way and evaded my question. Only once did someone actually direct me to where Jehovah’s Witnesses congregate.
Even those who respect freedom of religion are prone to such pronouncements as, “I refuse to listen to them but they intrude anyway!” Most people have long realized they can avoid watching an objectionable television program by using the remote control. Yet, people still have not figured out how to stop the annoying presence of Jehovah’s Witnesses at their door. Overly enthusiastic missionaries can be irritating, but no one has filed a complaint with the Prosecutor’s Office or the Office of the Public Defender’s about Jehovah’s Witnesses breaking into anyone’s home. Still, certain members of our society consider them “aggressive.”
Rather than Jehovah’s Witnesses being the aggressors, the facts establish the opposite. To give an example: On 20 March 2007, Father Irakli Khomeriki tried to drag a Jehovah’s Witness forcibly into church. The following year, the same priest beat up another Jehovah’s Witness. Both the police department of the Kaspi district and the Prosecutor’s Office have yet to release details of the investigation of the latter incident.
To learn more about problems faced by Jehovah’s Witnesses – problems which media rarely discuss – Tabula visited them in their centre.
The Kingdom Hall or administrative centre of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Georgia is located in Varketili. The complex consists of several large buildings painted in light colors which stand out in the grayish neighborhood. The grounds are mostly covered with neatly-mowed green grass. A small clay wine cask and a barbeque add national touches to the minimalist interior. The ambiance is more reminiscent of an American college than a Tbilisi suburb.
Touring the centre, I discover that Jehovah’s Witnesses drink wine quite frequently at an outdoor wooden table shaded by trees. “I thought you were prohibited from drinking,” I tell my host, attorney Manuchar Tsimintia, who is a long-time defender of Jehovah’s Witnesses. “Why? Cannot wine be pleasing to sectarians’ hearts?” he asks and then supports his argument with a passage from the Bible. In conversation, he displays anatomic knowledge of the Bible, quoting it chapter and verse. He introduces me to “Elder” Tamaz. The word “elder” sounds somewhat archaic, but Tamaz himself is an episkopos (bishop) with a smoothly-shaved face and a pink shirt with tie.
“How come Jehovah’s Witnesses have become a sort of synonym for antipathy?” I ask congregants after they supply me with a Bible and assorted informational booklets. That is the first question that comes instantly to mind. When speaking with Jehovah’s Witnesses, you realize that all the mud-slinging against them has affected your impression as well: When one specific group is attacked repeatedly, the suspicion naturally emerges that perhaps the group itself – in this instance, the Jehovah’s Witnesses – may be the instigators.
According to Elder Tamaz, societal intolerance partly reflects the concern of the dominant religious institution which sees Jehovah’s Witnesses as a strong rival. Aggressive rhetoric of media and clergy also contributes to this intolerance. It is further exacerbated by Jehovah’s Witnesses’ teachings, which believers of other faiths find unacceptable.
“When your religious belief obliges you to go and offer the word of God to people, be it in a modest and polite way, you must know that you will make many angry,” the Elder contends. “They will write lots of nasty things about you and will not even give you the right to reply and defend your cause.” Prosthelytizing is an integral part of the life of Jehovah’s Witnesses. They link it to early Christianity and the discipular tradition. They know their preaching is a right protected by international law and they see themselves as righteous citizens.
Active missionary work has borne fruit: Despite stigmatization and attack, the congregation has increased annually by four percent. According to Kingdom Hall data, the total number of baptized Jehovah’s Witnesses in Georgia now stands at 18,000; when that number is combined with those interested in the denomination the number of adherents swells to 40,000. Worldwide, there are seven million Jehovah’s Witnesses. Their high growth rate has inspired fear among traditional religious institutions. Unlike followers of traditional religions, Jehovah’s Witnesses are not part of the political mainstream – their religious beliefs distance them completely from politics. Jehovah’s Witnesses do not run for political office or even vote in political elections. They also maintain a pacifistic attitude toward military service. Traditional religious institutions, usually, exaggerate capabilities of their mission – no modern state could possibly exist if a majority of its citizens were devout Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Had the Georgian Patriarchate adopted positive forms of the mission, it might have avoided crimes instigated from its pulpit. Given its incredibly huge resources, it might also have succeeded in converting far more people. Other traditional religious institutions realized decades ago that the time has long passed since excommunication was enough to silence a rival. Pluralism is an integral part of modern society which – along with religious diversity – the Patriarchate needs to learn and accept.
The history of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Georgia dates back to 1953, when Valentina Miminoshvili returned from Germany as Soviet Georgia’s first Jehovah’s Witness. She had converted to the religion while imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. There were many Jehovah’s Witnesses in that concentration camp who were subject to persecution because of their beliefs. After returning to the homeland, Valentina Miminoshvili was also persecuted for her beliefs and exiled to a Soviet camp. Later, in 1970, the Kremlin responded to formation of a twelve-member council of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Gali district by sending a warning to the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic “about expected threat caused by the activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses.” In the face of wide-spread persecution and terror, Jehovah’s Witnesses began conducting meetings mostly in Russian so they would not be perceived as a threat. In 1986, they started conducting them in Georgian as well. In 1988, some 985 Jehovah’s Witnesses were preaching in Georgia. By 1991-92, their number had risen to 3,400.
In independent Georgia, volumes have been written about violations of the rights of Jehovah’s Witnesses. We all remember too well the violent raids organized by defrocked priest Basil Mkalavishvili and his Gldani congregation in which Jehovah’s Witnesses were severely beaten. The findings of the European Court of Human Rights in 2007 confirmed the existing situation: “In total, the Jehovah’s Witnesses alleged that they had been subjected to 138 attacks between October  and November 2002 and that 784 complaints had been lodged with the relevant authorities. No careful and serious investigation had been carried out into any of those complaints.” Georgia lost that case before the European Court in 2007. During the period specified in the Court opinion, the persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses was carried out with tacit approval of police. In one interview, Basil Mkalavishvili recounted how he informed police in advance about raids which were planned against Jehovah’s Witnesses. The police then never bothered to turn up at the scenes of those crimes.
Although the number of such attacks has significantly declined in recent years, instances of raids against Jehovah’s Witnesses described in reports of the Georgian Public Defender still far exceed those carried out against members of other denominations.
People who use force to prevent “spiritual expansion” violate the very principles they claim to defend, yet they believe that violence offers a pragmatic solution – “after being beaten, one will not try to entice followers.” Historical experience proves otherwise: Persecution only makes a religious group better organized.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are among the most persecuted minorities of the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries. For decades they have been the subject of countless court cases and, by non-violently asserting their civil rights, they have achieved great success. Manuchar Tsimintia believes that “to fight for one’s own rights in reality means to fight for others’ rights as well.”
Societies throughout the world have distanced themselves from Jehovah’s Witnesses because of some of the doctrines that have been challenged in court. One of the most contentious issues has been the flat denial of Jehovah’s Witnesses to accept blood transfusions, even to save a life. However, that is not inconsistent with the laws of most countries, including Georgia, which grant adults the right to refuse medical care. Any doctor disregarding a patient’s refusal to be treated risks losing the license to practice medicine. Many Jehovah’s Witnesses carry a blood-refusal card to inform doctors not to assume they consent to a blood transfusion if it is impossible for the doctor to communicate with them in critical cases.
The law requires a different approach when religious teachings endanger the lives of minors. The Law of Georgia on the Right of Patients specifies that, in emergency cases when a child’s life is endangered, the parents’ religious beliefs can be disregarded. Despite the clarity of the law on this issue, even President Mikheil Saakashvili felt compelled to intervene personally to save the life of a four-year-old girl last year.