Muslims in Batumi are in desperate need of more space to practice their religion. However, suspicion, opposition, and Turkophobia from local politicians and Christian Orthodox activists is leaving them out in the cold.
Muslims from Batumi, the capital of the Autonomous Republic of Adjara in southwest Georgia, gather at the city’s only mosque, Orta, to pray. But every week, during Friday prayers, when the number of worshippers is significantly large, people cannot squeeze into the mosque, and many are forced to pray outside under the sky.
For decades Batumi’s Muslim community has demanded that land be allocated to construct a second mosque in the city. Despite repeated promises from the local and central governments, the problem has remained unresolved.
This became a contentious issue during the 2012 Georgian parliamentary elections. People claimed that Muslims wanted to construct reconstruct an Aziz mosque in Batumi, which was unacceptable for some Orthodox Christians.
Ottoman Sultan Abdülaziz I constructed a mosque in the centre of Batumi close to the coast in 1868. The mosque was destroyed in the beginning of the 20th century. In recent years there has been speculation that Turkey wants to restore the mosque, which has fuelled widespread anti-Turkish sentiment in the region. In the eyes of many opponents to the mosque, Turkey is seen as an imperial power aiming to restore control over Adjara, if not politically, then by means of expanded business ties, promotion of Turkish culture, and weakening of Christian influences to facilitate the expansion of Islam. However the Adjaran Muslims community has repeatedly denied that they want to construct a mosque on this location, especially considering the space has already been used.
Another complication is that the Georgian Orthodox Church has remained steadfast in their opposition to the construction of a second mosque. Although the patriarchate has never made an official statement on the issue, the local clergy in Batumi have repeatedly lead rallies against the plan.
In 2014, the State Agency on Religious Affairs, which was established by the newly elected Georgian Dream government, stated that the Muslim community didn’t want to construct a second mosque, but instead they wanted a residence for muftis as well as a madrasa (a religious school). But, the Muslim community has made it clear that they need a second mosque, and it has become impossible for everyone to fit in the Orta Mosque and the streets surrounding it.
In 2015, worshipers from the Orta Mosque created an initiative group to work towards constructing a new mosque, and the group started actively lobbying for this. They collected 12,000 signatures in just a few weeks to get permission for the construction.
The Head of the Georgian Muslims’ Union, Tariel Nakaidze, told OC media that the signatures prove that the local Muslim community are against any alternative proposals other than the construction of a second mosque.
‘We have sent the signatures everywhere — to the Prime Minister and to the local government to emphasise that the issue hasn’t been resolved and is still on the agenda’, he said.
He believes that the authorities do not dare to act because the Orthodox Church has an enormous amount of power, and they do not want to confront the Church.
‘There are politicians who openly declare in their election promises that they won’t allow construction of another mosque in Batumi if they win, and this is direct discrimination’, Nakaidze remarks.
Giorgi Shavadze, a student from Batumi, tells us that young people are not necessarily against construction of the mosque.
‘Very often these people [Muslims] have to pray outside in rain or snow and almost every young non-Muslim I know agrees that the new mosque is necessary and has to be built, but under one condition — the money should only be Georgian’, he says.
His comment relates to speculations that the second mosque will be constructed with Turkish money, which many people oppose.
Nodar Davitadze from the mosque construction initiative group, told OC Media that the Muslim community has never asked to reconstruct the Aziz mosque, and that they just want a place where they can go freely and pray. He claims that the Aziz issue has emerged because of nothing more than rumors and politically motivated speculation.
‘We don’t care about having mosques built in the name of certain people. We just want a new mosque. Not a single Muslim in Adjara has participated in any negotiations to construct an Aziz mosque, and we have never asked for it’, Davitadze remarks.
Some Christians in Batumi object to the volume of the call to prayer from the mosque. Konstantine Tsuladze lives in Batumi close to the existing mosque. He tells us that the sound of the Islamic adhan (call to prayer) is sometimes disturbing, but he doesn’t have anything against the mosque itself.
‘It is very insulting when the sound of the adhan wakes you up, especially during our religious holidays. For example, on Good Friday when the adhan wakes me up — this is an insult for me. They should do it less noisily. Georgia is an Orthodox country, and they should respect this’, he says.
An official Georgian Muslim Department was set up in 2011 in Batumi. Some in the Muslim community are suspicious of the body, because the government established it and they believe that they use it to pursue the government’s interests.
The Muslim Department manages all mosques in Georgia, and takes care of their needs and maintenance. If the government allocates money for the Muslim community from the budget, the Muslim Department manages it, whether for the construction of new mosques or anything else.
Some in the Muslim community also believe that the government is directly involved in selecting the mufti of all Georgia, and this is why the department always does what the government instructs it to do.
The department denies these accusations, saying that they do their best to satisfy the demands of the community. When it comes to the construction of the mosque, the department explained that they are working on this, however they do not have a specific plan right now.
For several years, Rezo Mikeladze has worked on education issues in the department. He says that there has never been a confrontation between the Muslim and Christian communities in Batumi about the construction of the mosque, but that certain people use this issue for their personal interests.
Due to the lack of attention from the government, the mosque construction initiative group purchased a plot of land in Batumi for the construction, and are now working on the plans for the building to take to City Hall to get permission from the government.
If they get permission, they will construct the mosque with own means.
Former Prime Minister and founder of the ruling Georgian Dream party Bidzina Ivanishvili, promised to construct a new mosque for Muslims in Batumi during the 2012 parliamentary elections, but this promise was never fulfilled. In October 2014, Ivanishvili’s successor, Irakli Garibashvili, met with Muslims and promised that he would examine this issue, but this also brought no results.
The project’s first draft has already been published by the initiative group. The authors of the plan include Georgian, Turkish, Arab and Iranian architects, in order to merge common Islamic architecture with Georgian elements.