Tea Tsulukiani

Tea Tsulukiani:The rights of the majority were breached

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On 26 December 2012, Minister of Justice Tea Tsulukiani spoke extensively on the topic of religion on the Georgian Public Broadcaster’s live talk show “Dialogue” with the presenter Davit Paichadze. Tabula offers part of that discussion:

 

D.P. Why do you believe it necessary for the council of religions to be linked with the government rather than staying where it is now – under the Public Defender’s Office of Georgia, the body responsible for defending human rights? From what angle could the activities of this or that religious organization be perceived other than in terms of ensuring that their rights are fully observed?

T.T. The council which operates under the Public Defender’s Office does a great job indeed; one may even have the impression that sometimes it exaggerates [some incidents] but in 99 percent of cases it does a very good job for this country. But encountering those two incidents [of religious intolerance in the villages of Tsintskaro and Nigvziani where local Orthodox Christians prevented local Muslims from performing their prayers], we have come to face reality. It is obvious that under the previous government the situation, where we are coming from in regard to this issue, was indeed tragic for the nation - and you are a person who remembers better than I those incidents that took place in Gldani [clashes between the followers of Basil Mkalavishvili, the defrocked priest of the Gldani Orthodox Eparchy, and the defenders of religious minority rights in the early 2000s] when you and [the current Chairman of the National Security Council Giga] Bokeria were beaten with the cross…

D.P. There were two other people who were also beaten...

T.T. Right, but that beating did not help Bokeria back then... That was, of course, a tragedy. It is unacceptable for anyone to beat another with the cross; it is unacceptable for anyone to storm into the place of prayer of any religious group. It is blasphemy and is a tragedy for a society that is trying to form itself into a nation state. That dark period ended when the Shevardnadze government was replaced and I admit that the former government [of Saakashvili] succeeded in giving religious freedom some shape and enabling people to pray…

D.P. Then why do you say that that beating did not help Bokeria? Bokeria was in Saakashvili’s government…

T.T. Did it help? How very nice. Do you mean that he should be beaten again to become better? Let’s forget Bokeria for a second… Under the conditions of our government we have come to face the reality that the situation with religious freedom has indeed improved as compared to Shevardnadze’s government, but lots of problems still remain. Under the Saakashvili government the rights of not only religious minorities but also of the religious majority and the Orthodox Church were breached quite often.

D.P. How? Can you recall an example of that?

T.T. It occurred in the form of constant veiled violence towards everyone, for example, in the form of the fragmentation of the Orthodox Church. It is an attempt to fragmentize when, through various methods, the government tries to make various clergymen its supporters; when the government tries to shatter the esteem of the most respected person, as His Holiness and Beatitude [Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia Ilia II] was, is and will always be; when the government tries to adopt such a law – and not only tries, but succeeds in adopting it – which, true, grants the status [of a legal entity of public law] to religious minorities, which is good, but which actually gives nothing to those religious minorities because this status is just an empty drawer without any content put in it…

D.P. What was the government supposed to put in it? The government made all religious groups equal with this status…

T.T. No it did not. It just granted status in the form of a label and nothing beyond that has improved in terms of either rights, taxes or property rights. By status they are equal, but that is not enough. Go and ask religious minorities whether they are content with that - they are not. Therefore that drawer needs to be filled, that status must become meaningful. And when that law was adopted the religious majority, the Orthodox Church, was not even asked what they thought about it…

D.P. Let’s finish with that topic; I will just recall some information for the audience, it will take me a mere 15 seconds. Many clergymen were engaged in open preaching and propaganda – call it whatever you want – in favor of the Georgian Dream coalition; there is video footage available of a priest demonstratively putting on a Georgian Dream T-shirt. You have not experienced any shortage of support from clergymen either…

T.T. I think I have not complained about that …

D.P. No, I am not saying that anyone is complaining; but simply that if you say that the previous government tried to find support among clergymen, your political force also tried to do the same and was successful in that…

T.T. Our political force did not try anything, quite the contrary.

D.P. At least it harbored those clergymen reaching out for your political force.

T.T. Absolutely not.

D.P. How so, Ms. Tea?! I remember that well.

T.T. Let us talk about how it should be in the future – we cannot achieve agreement regarding the past now, nor should we have to. Let’s talk about what we want in the future: for the Orthodox Church and religious minorities to enjoy real religious freedom, so that any political force –politicians working individually or as a party – is not able to interfere or use any religious group for its political interests; that no notion exists of a clergyman supporting this or that force in any of the churches. That is something which must end, because otherwise we will fail to achieve real religious freedom.

D.P. That largely depends on the clergymen themselves.

T.T. It largely depends on them and largely depends on us; on how the civil authorities behave. The civil authorities should understand that they must not intrude in the internal matters of the church, as was the case with the previous government – no matter how much you disapprove of that, this is what I think and I will say it out loud.

D.P. In which internal matters did the previous government intrude? No one in the National Movement has any idea about religious dogmas, how could they intrude…

T.T. That’s why that intrusion was bad, because they have no idea. The civil authority must be aware of religious dogmas and we are obliged to be more educated [in religious matters].

D.P. Why should the civil authority be more educated in religious matters?

T.T. In order not to infringe upon religious freedom…

D.P. Civil authority with religious dogmas is Iran, Ms. Tea. Why on earth do we need such politicians?

T.T. Religious dogma is not belief and the civil authority must have some understanding of what this or that church preaches. I want to understand. Do not prohibit me from learning what religion preaches what in order to better defend their rights, or from understanding what their claims and demands are. Do not prohibit me from satisfying my thirst for knowledge.

D.P. How long have you been interested in that?

T.T. Quite long, I have not reached a high level of understanding yet, but will definitely reach it!

Let’s go back to what we started with – the inter-religious council is the idea that the government needs to establish a constant dialogue with the church and religious minorities on, for example, the topics of [electronic] ID cards. This is a very important topic and I want to hear the different opinions which exist within the Orthodox Church about that. I doubt that I am prohibited from learning better about those religious principles which run counter to having an [electronic] ID card; about which functions of this card are unacceptable for believers; and whether religious minorities share the same opinions. In this regard, some type of inter-religious council should exist as a venue for dialogue. However, I am not going to wait until the council is set up. Beginning in early January, I will start meeting with clergymen and representatives of every church. The former government refused to admit that a segment of society – we do not even know what segment or how big it is – was concerned about the issue of [electronic] ID cards. We are the government, and I am a representative of that government, which has admitted that the problem exists, that already means a lot. We do not say, as did the previous government, that those who do not want [electronic] ID cards simply do not understand that such [electronic] ID cards mean progress. That is not the correct approach. Those who do not like [electronic] ID cards must be asked why they do not like them. That is a problem. I have met people who refuse to take [electronic] ID cards on religious grounds and because of this [lack of proper ID] cannot vaccinate their newly born babies. This is a problem.

D.P. What do you think that this is a problem of? Is it of belief or more of education?

T.T. It is a problem – let’s start with that. Do not push me towards an assessment…

D.P. You have assessed so many things…

T.T. No. I am not ready for that assessment. When I am ready, I make assessments and I am not ashamed of that. But at this stage, I am not ready for that assessment. I can say that there is a problem. However, there is a lot of work needed to assess whether that is a problem of education, or if it is related to the civil and religious authorities’ inability to communicate with each other, or indeed if the functions of the ID card go to such lengths that, even leaving aside beliefs, it conflicts with the principles of protecting personal data. A lot of work needs to be done and we start working on it from January.

D.P. It is not the business of a journalist, but I am glad to see representatives of the government attending events not only of the majority religious groups but of the minority groups as well. For example, you attended mass in the Catholic Church on Christmas…

T.T. I even prayed together with [former Prime Minister] Vano [Merabishvili] in the church. Can you imagine?

D.P. That is good for our citizens, I think. Also the Mayor of Tbilisi and you attended a Pentecostal church service, which no government representatives have attended before.

T.T. Unlike me, the Mayor of Tbilisi even danced there. I am more burdened with sins and did not allow myself to dance.

D.P. Well, it sounds like I missed quite the show. All that is good, but are you going to ask religious minorities whether they want to join a council together with the government at all?

T.T. I voiced the idea about creating a forum – we can call it a group, a council or invent any other name that suits everyone – with the government as the government is responsible not only for taking care of religious rights, but also of amending laws, developing regulations and supporting religious freedom. Everyone, without exception, liked that idea in principle. But, of course, this idea needs to be further developed in order to find out who will ultimately like or dislike it.

D.P. One more question then let us close the topic of the relationship with religious minorities. I want to recall two incidents - one of Nigvziani and, especially, the second of Tsintskaro. Agreement was reached in Tsintskaro that Muslims from other districts will not arrive in the village to perform prayers. That may contravene a fundamental human right – the freedom of movement. Moreover, if they do not arrive in Tsintskaro, they will not be able pray either, which may violate the freedom of religion. The agreement which was reached has created a discriminatory environment for one of the religious minorities in this country.

T.T. These two incidents differ from each other in that in Nigvziani – and I think my Svan kinfolk will not feel offended by this – we dealt with Gurians, who are peaceful people and there was space for dialogue until force was demonstrated. In the case of Tsintskaro, however, when I heard that news I instantly contacted the Interior Minister who had heard the news just minutes before. We agreed that the patrol police would be deployed and that representatives of the Interior Minister would be more active there than in the case of Nigvziani because in Tsintskaro we saw Svans, indignant on the religious grounds, armed with spades. That is, of course, unacceptable. You must be unaware, or you have forgotten to note, that the patrol police questioned many Orthodox Christians there as well as Muslims. There were accusations made from both sides and as you know, in case of religious conflict, just as in case of ethnic conflict, judging right from wrong is a delicate issue and requires extreme caution.

D.P. I am interested in your attitude towards the result which, in my view, implies some sort of discrimination.

T.T. I do not agree and I will tell you why. People were interrogated because, as Orthodox Christians contend, crosses were removed in Tsintskaro. Orthodox Christians were also interrogated because no one has the right to prevent a Muslim, or a representative of any other religion, from praying. Therefore, the police played an important role there and, by the way, the investigation into that incident is still in progress. As regards the agreement, I do not think that the freedoms of those people who cannot arrive there [in Tsintskaro] are infringed because within the scope of that agreement it was checked whether or not they could pray somewhere else without arriving there and triggering tension on the local level. Consequently, I do not understand where the infringement of religious freedom can be seen in such a case.

D.P. When Muslims are prohibited from arriving in that village to pray together with other Muslims, what is that…

T.T. I did not want to say this, but since you went into detail I will say that both those incidents were instigated by the third party. And we will conduct an investigation into that as well.

 

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