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Georgia’s Public Defender published its annual human rights report for 2016 on 1 April, describing the conditions of various groups in Georgia.
According to the report, violence against religious minorities, and unsolved criminal cases into this violence, is a major problem. The report claims that Georgia’s Orthodox Church receives preferential treatment and is offered various advantages that aren’t available to religious minorities.
‘The Patriarchate, unlike other religious confessions, enjoys tax privileges and in many cases is free from paying VAT, and income and property taxes’, the report reads.
The Public Defender also writes that penitentiary institutions have an inconsistent attitude to prisoners of different religious beliefs, and school administrations in Georgia often do not consider students’ religious beliefs, and invite clergy from the dominant religion.
‘We revealed texts containing intolerance, xenophobia, and prejudice in school textbooks’, the report reads.
The ombudsman refers to various high-profile cases of discrimination against Muslims, for example at a boarding school in Kobuleti, a town in western Georgia’s Black Sea coast, in 2014. On 10 September 2014, a pig’s head was nailed to the gate of the town’s Muslim boarding school, as some local people objected to the opening of the Muslim school in the neighbourhood. A criminal case into the event is still ongoing, and has now been sent to the Appeals Court.
In another case, Vagip Akperov, former Sheikh of the Georgian Muslims' Union, claims that he was forced to resign from his post in December 2013. He says that he was summoned to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and forced to write his letter of resignation, after they blackmailed him by threatening to release information about his private life. The Prosecutor’s Office is continuing to investigate the case, which remains unsolved.
The report mentions another conflict, in the village of Adigeni in southern Georgia in February 2016, when the local Muslim population appealed to the municipality to allocate land for a separate cemetery, which resulted in a brawl between local people; three Muslims were injured. An investigation was launched for petty hooliganism but was then closed, without identifying the case as an example of discrimination.
The unresolved conflict in Batumi over the need for a second mosque is also mentioned in the report. Religious minorities often encounter problems while attempting to construct prayer houses.
The report also includes cases of discrimination against other minority religions in the country, including a dispute over the construction of a Catholic church in Rustavi, a town 20 km from the capital. Catholics had been requesting for about four years that the local municipality issue them permission for the construction.
In June 2016, the City Court sided with the Catholic Church, after which Rustavi City Hall appealed the case to the Appeals Court. After the government proposed an alternative location for the construction, in another part of town, the local Catholics accepted the offer, fearing that the court case could drag on for years.
According to the ombudsman, persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses has continued to increase. Last year, the Public Defender was notified of two cases in which the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Kingdom Hall was attacked. Investigations into the attacks were launched for hooliganism, and were closed without being investigated as persecution on religious grounds or discrimination.
The restoration of cultural heritage monuments in the country was also raised as a point of discrimination, as Christian monuments are always prioritised over buildings and ruins of other religious confessions.
The annual report is submitted to parliament and will likely be discussed by MPs at the end of April.