A religious conflict erupted in the western Georgian village of Nigvziani in Guria’s Lanchkhuti municipality on 26 October. Having just completed their Friday prayers, local Muslims were leaving for their homes when some 150 non-Muslim villagers blocked their way. The Christian-majority villagers demanded that their minority Muslim neighbors stop praying for good and that their prayer room be closed down permanently. Those demands were accompanied by physical and verbal abuse. “Tatars can never pray in Guria!” “What gives followers of some foreign religion the right to pray in a Christian country?!” “You will never be allowed to build a mosque in Guria!” Christians shouted at the Muslims.
Some 3,500 families were resettled to the Lanchkhuti municipality from various villages in Adjara about thirty years ago. As many as 1,500 of the families – 600 of them resettled eco-migrants – now live in Nigvziani. A year ago, the Nigvziani Muslims bought a house with their own means and arranged a small prayer room on its first floor. More than 300 believers have been performing Friday prayers there for six months now. Nigvziani is the only village in Lanchkhuti in which the local Muslim congregation has established a masjid.
On 1 November, the eve of Friday prayer following the confrontation, an Orthodox priest and members of the Christian congregation arrived at the Nigvziani masjid, again demanding that Muslims stop their religious service. The Muslims refused to do that. On Friday, 2 November, Chief Mufti of Georgia Jemal Paksadze arrived himself in Nigvziani. A group of local Christians blocked him from entering the masjid too. A verbal confrontation then ensued. The situation was finally diffused when Mufti, along with local Christians and the Orthodox priest, agreed to go to the local administration building for talks. Only then were the Muslims able to perform their prayer service.
Warnings and threats that blood would be spilled should the Friday prayer be continued were heard in the village throughout the confrontation. Police watched the situation, but did not respond to those threats and verbal offences.
Commenting on that incident, Georgian Parliament Vice Speaker Murman Dumbadze said: “I have received a telephone call that a citizen of the Republic of Turkey is building a praying place and is engaged in religious proselytism, which we will not allow. Conflict must be settled fairly. Interests of the [indigenous] population must naturally be also considered. If [a mosque] is really being built by a Turkish citizen, locals naturally express their reaction.”
In fact, Georgian legislation does not prohibit proselytizing by representatives of any religious group. Even if that were the case, traditional religious minorities of Georgia are not actually “proselytizing”; they are not busy preaching and trying to convert others to their religion. In contrast, the Georgian Orthodox Church carries out that mission quite aggressively; in Adjara, it has baptized scores of Muslims since Georgia gained its independence. Instances of Christians converting to Islam are extremely rare. Muslim organizations instead concentrate on educating their own community and increasing the mobility of believers already within the group rather than recruiting new members.
In any event, it is not clear why a citizen of Turkey would not have the right to practice his/her religion in Georgia when Russian citizens build cathedrals and monasteries in Georgia without any impediment. Examples of that include Russian businessmen of Georgian origin such as Levan Vasadze, who co-financed the construction of a monastery in the Dariali Gorge, and Mamuka Jincharadze who co-financed construction of the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Tbilisi, to name a few. Along with businessmen, Georgian thieves-in-law operating in Russia have also supplied funds for the construction of various Orthodox religious buildings. And that is happening at a time when Turkey is a strategic ally of Georgia and Russia is an occupying force.
One out of every ten people living in Georgia today is a Muslim. About thirty percent of them live in Adjara. They are ethnic Georgians who practice Sunni Islam. The remaining seventy percent are ethnic Azerbaijanis, who are believers in Shia Islam. Overall, neither the Muslims of Adjara, neighboring with Turkey, nor the Mufti Administration practice radical Islam. During Soviet times, religious groups were intermingled in organizations established by the Soviet authorities, which imposed total control over the Orthodox Church and also the Mufti Administration of Caucasus established during Stalin rule. Stalinist violence against Soviet “tame Islam” gave birth to the Salaphites. The religion of Islam knows best of all what “Holy War” means.
Persecution pushes radical groups to move underground. Islam pushed to the underground is not the same as Protestant or Catholic churches in the catacombs of China, Africa or even North Korea. Radical Islam groups do not limit themselves to conducting secret meetings and living lives as martyrs. Crowded out of the public domain, those groups quickly succeed in persuading their youth to attack security mechanisms. The older generation, whose belief was crushed by the Soviet regime, is less susceptible to the influence of religious fundamentalism, but religious fundamentalism no longer respects the older generation. Moderate Islamic forces, the official administration and the clergy also have less control over the religious life. In contrast to the official mufti administration, radical Islam forces do not deal squarely with authorities.
The mufti who enters into a deal with the authority loses respect within the Muslim community. Islamic spiritual authority does not resemble Christian authority. Mufti is more of an administrator than the episcope. Obeying or disobeying the mufti is not a doctrinal issue. Consequently, the Muslim community is actually influenced by the mufti who has more followers than by the one who is higher in rank. Any concession on the part of the mufti can be perceived as treachery and, therefore, neither the Mufti Administration nor any government seeking an easy solution can rely on that. One cannot coerce Muslims to cede their rights or spiritual hierarchy.
A year ago, the former government of Georgia established the Mufti Administration of Georgia, thereby uniting Shia and Sunni Muslims. In so doing, the state tried to prevent the inflow of radical Islam from Turkey. Moreover, the state needed to isolate Georgian citizens of Azerbaijani origin from the spiritual leader seated in Baku, Allahshukur Pashazade, Sheikh ul-Islam Pashazade, who has close ties with the current President of Chechnya and with Russia. Despite resistance from the government of Azerbaijan, Iran has managed to exert a strong influence over the spiritual life of that country. Iranian religious groups may also have influence over Muslim Georgian citizens. Even though the former government of Georgia fully controlled the Mufti Administration, the control of radical groups is absolutely impossible. Islam is not as hierarchical a religion as traditional Christianity.
Given that the majority of followers of Islam in Georgia are not ethnic Georgians, anti-Islamic hysteria could quickly degenerate into ethnic conflict. In recent days, more than ten instances of violence against Azerbaijani citizens of Georgia have been reported.
Interior Minister Irakli Garibashvili has assumed personal control of the investigation into those recent acts of anti-Muslim violence, pledging: “I personally am keeping tabs on the ongoing investigation. We plan to undertake concrete operations. No problem will exist; I guarantee that such incidents will never happen again.”
Subsequent statements by Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani and Parliamentary Human Rights Committee Chair Eka Beselia indicate something other than the state’s readiness to perform its function. They instead imply the transfer of that function to the Church and the punishment of a culprit.
“When a source of religious tension arises, the state, including me, is obliged to allow the churches first to settle the incident,” Justice Minister Tsulukiani declared after the Nigvziani confrontation between Christians and Muslims.
“That was an infringement of Muslims’ rights. That was a disagreement and controversy of opinions…,” Eka Beselia said, then ominously added: “Defending one’s rights does not mean that others’ rights must be breached. No one says here that Muslims must not pray in the village. [Nigvziani Christians] are just talking about rules, [about reaching] agreement that [Muslims] pray calmly and quietly.”
Obstructing the conduct of religious service is punishable under the Criminal Code of Georgia. Pursuant to Article 155, “Illegal interference with the worship or performance of other religious rites or customs through violence or the threat of violence, or if done by insulting the religious beliefs of a believer or servant of God, shall be punishable by a fine or by corrective labour for up to one year or by imprisonment for up to a two-year term.”
With regard to the Nigvziani incident, the acting Public Defender of Georgia (Ombudsman) addressed the Interior Ministry on 9 November with the following statement: “Since the processes underway in the village of Nigvziani may cause a religious feud among the citizens of Georgia, it is necessary that all the respective bodies take swift and effective measures to avoid expected danger.”
The state thereafter organized a meeting between the Chief Mufti of Georgia and representatives of the Orthodox Church, but the two sides came away with two entirely different views of what transpired at that meeting. Clergy of the Georgian Church said that only four or five Muslim families would henceforth be allowed to pray in the Nigvziani masjid at any one time while Muslims insisted that they had received guarantees that problem would be solved and that their right to pray would be fully protected.
In reality, the two sides failed to reach any agreement. Since then, Muslims in Nigvziani have not been prevented from performing their Friday prayer service. However, that is not because dialogue between representatives of the two religions was fruitful. Rather, it was because of the intervention of the state. According to Union of Georgian Muslims representative Tariel Nakaidze, the police have warned Nigvziani Christians not to approach the Muslim place of worship. Only that admonishment has made the conduct of Muslim religious services in Nigvziani possible. That immediate result still does not provide sufficient guarantees, however. The mood of the local population remains hostile and one cannot exclude resumption and/or escalation of the conflict.
With that in mind, representatives of a non-governmental organization called The House of Tolerance rallied outside the Ministry of Justice to applaud the Minister for “eliminating” the religious problem.
That marked the first test of the new government on whether it equally ensures the freedom of belief – and it received a failing grade. The former government had strengthened religious freedom by adopting a legislative amendment allowing the registration of religious associations and by prosecuting Orthodox extremist lawbreakers, which, in turn, led to a decrease in the number of religious hate crimes. Now, the impunity granted by the new government threatens to reverse that trend.
The country witnessed the destructive consequences of ethnic confrontation in the 1990s. Ethnic conflicts that started as minor incidents escalated into military campaigns, such as with Abkhaz and South Ossetians. The same danger existed, back then, with Armenian and Azerbaijani citizens of Georgia, but the country averted that conflict and survived. Georgia is home to many ethnic and religious minorities densely settled in various areas. Those minorities need guarantees that the Georgian state will act in accordance with the legislation in reacting to crimes provoked by xenophobia.
The conflict in the village of Nigvziani has made clear that, out of that motley composition of the new truling team, those polirical forces with declared Western values do not actually act for the protection of human rights. Those forces supported the coming to power of people who radically oppose their declared values. The election of Murman Dumbadze as the Vice Speaker of Parliament has given a green light to xenophobic sentiments in the society. One need only look at what is happening in Nigvziani for proof of that.
The situation there is especially dangerous because the harm caused by religious and ethnic hostilities is long-lasting. It takes decades to settle conflicts arising over the issue of identity. Even temporary solutions to such conflicts are virtually impossible to find. Ethnic and religious hatred endures time all too well with each new generation infected with a more virulent strain. Once that epidemic breaks out, even a change in power will be of no help in containing it.
Criminal clan conflicts that plagued our society after Georgia gained independence were combated through a change of government. The most fertile ground for those conflicts was the inactivity of the government and the weakness of the state. Crime bosses who stepped in as surrogates for government and the state perpetuated those conflicts. Subsequent changes in power led to the consequent diminution of the power of the crime bosses. But hostility on the ground of identity and the irrational hatred that stirs in members of the society takes a very long time to cure. Meanwhile, the country and each and every member of the society sustain irreparable harm. No matter how good a government is, its action by then will have no immediate effect.