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The Georgian Orthodox Church has called on the government to ‘protect the religious feelings of believers’ after an on-air joke by Rustavi 2 anchor Giorgi Gabunia about Jesus Christ. Despite being reprimanded by the head of the channel, Gabunia has refused to apologise.
On 20 March the Patriarchate of Georgia issued a statement claiming that ‘insulting religious feelings and profanity has intensified lately’.
‘We demand the government respond swiftly in order to relieve believers, whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish or any other, from the feeling of injustice and vulnerability’, the statement says.
The Church also condemned Georgian condom brand AIISA and its director, ‘whose immoral self-conceit […] has become a challenge for society’. AIISA is a conceptual condom brand featuring medieval Georgian monarch Queen Tamar, deemed a saint by the Church, on some of its packaging.
The Church’s statement came after far-right group the March of Georgians attacked three journalists from Rustavi 2 on Monday afternoon in Tbilisi. The Patriarchate called this an ‘abrupt reaction’ in its statement.
During his weekly Sunday show, P.S., Giorgi Gabunia joked that Jesus Christ made a ‘big mistake’ when he went to Israel two thousand years ago, and should have instead come to Adjara, western Georgia, ‘two or three years’ from now, as he ‘could not have been crucified’. The reason for this, Gabunia went on, was that there will be no tree left to make a cross. ‘By that time, all the trees would have been transplanted by [former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili]’, Gabunia said.
The director of Rustavi 2, Nika Gvaramia said he had reprimanded Gabunia for his comments, and that ‘he should abstain from such statements’. Gvaramia apologised to ‘every believer whose [religious] feelings were insulted’, but added that he did not consider the March of Georgians to be believers.
After the attack, 6 people were arrested on charges of group hooliganism. They may face 2–5 years of jail-time if convicted. Separately the Interior Ministry launched investigation for threats against Gabunia .
The March of Georgians have said they will not back down, promising to ‘paralyse’ Rustavi 2, unless Gabunia personally apologises.
‘Tens of thousands will march to Rustavi 2 and their journalists’ work will be hindered unless Gabunia apologises for the cynical statement he made. He owes an apology to Georgian society’, a member of the group, Konstantine Morgoshia, said on 21 March.
A number of local organisations have released statements demanding that freedom of speech be guaranteed.
But a joint statement issued on 19 March by several groups, including Transparency International Georgia, the Institute for Development of Freedom of Information, and the International Society for Fair Elections And Democracy, initially hailed Rustavi 2’s decision to reprimand Gabunia for insulting ‘religious feelings’. They later clarified that this was ‘a mistake’, and deleted the passage from the statement, saying it happened because they had rushed to react on the matter.
A statement issued on 21 March by No To Phobia said ‘it is impermissible to allow restrictions on freedom of expression in order to avoid “insulting religious feelings” ’.
‘The main idea of freedom of expression is the possibility of exercising the right of expressing ideas, including critical, shocking, or insulting ones. Religious feelings, (which are subjective and individual) are not and cannot be ground for justifying such restrictions. Such cases promote the restoration of an ‘inquisitorial’ past, which will definitely have a stinging effect on healthy criticism in society’, the statement says.
There have been previous attempts to take action against ‘insulting religious feelings’. In 2016, Georgian Dream MP Soso Jachvliani initiated a bill written by the Demographic Development Foundation, an organisation sympathetic to the March of Georgians.
The bill eventually failed, but had initially gained support at a Human Rights Committee hearing from several prominent ruling party MPs, including the current head of the Legal Committee Eka Beselia and chairperson Gedevan Popkhadze.
[Read more about developments at Rustavi 2 on OC Media: Rustavi 2 journalists attacked by far-right group for joke about Jesus and Ivanishvili]