ISFED’s Evaluations and Recommendations about the Developments in the Village of Chela

International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy expresses its concern over the developments in the village of Chela and believes that the removal of mosque minaret and the excessive use of force against local population violated the rights guaranteed by the Constitution of Georgia, legislation and international norms. ISFED jointly with other NGOs made a statement about the foregoing; however, this time we would like to address various agencies with recommendations and urge them to take actions in frames of their competence for ensuring equal protection of constitutional rights of all citizens of Georgia. 

The Constitution of Georgia guarantees universal freedom of speech, opinion, conscience, religion and belief. Furthermore, the Criminal Code of Georgia provides legal guarantees for protection of religious freedom and prohibits violation of quality 
of humans based on their religion or confession. 

Georgia is a secular state and there is no notion of “state religion”. Although the Constitution of Georgia and various legal acts expressly stipulate freedom of belief and religion, prohibiting violation of equality of humans based on their religious affiliation, regrettably, there have been a number of instances of physical violence motivated by religious intolerance, curtailing of freedom of religion on a number of occasions, including obstruction of Muslim prayer. As noted in 2012 report of the Public Defender, a number of violations of law motivated by religious contempt and suggesting crime remain uninvestigated. 

Inadequate actions taken by the state in response and its frequent failure to act has resulted in the August 26, 2013 developments in the village of Chela, Adigeni Municipality. The Revenue Service of the Ministry of Finance of Georgia removed minaret from mosque for the purpose of goods inspection. We believe that both the Revenue Service and a number of other agencies have grossly violated legal norms. 

Excessive use of force by the police

We believe that during the rally dispersal the police used excessive force. Warning shots were fired for no specific reason. Following a clash between the police and rally participants several citizens were arrested and imposed with various punishments. 

Inappropriate interference of local self-government in religious confrontation
The fact that representatives of local self-government, Sakrebulo Chairman Oleg Sandroshvili and Akhaltsikhe Gamgebeli Besik Bliadze appeared at the rally in support of Orthodox population and made statements siding the demands of protesters was completely unjustified and discriminatory. Based on the principles of secular state, it is unacceptable for the state to favor positions of representatives of any religious group. 

Position of the Minister of Justice

Position of Minister of Justice is rather alarming, as she has publicly stated that right to construct minaret may be questioned as the decision must be made based on public consultations. We believe that public consultations about whether to construct a place of worship constitutes a discriminatory treatment. 

Interference of Orthodox Church in state affairs

Statement of Orthodox clergymen and guarantees they have proclaimed before the Orthodox parish not to allow building of minaret is also alarming. We believe that the Church has no authority to interfere in state affairs while it is the direct obligation of the state to ensure freedom of religion guaranteed by the Georgian laws, non-discriminatory treatment of each and every congregation and observance of legal norms outlined by applicable legislation or international mechanisms. 

ISFED urges

The authorities to unequivocally condemn and distance itself away from discriminatory approach towards various congregations;
The Revenue Service – to act within its legally determined scope, as well as to illustrate maximum effort for avoiding any interference that may trigger religious strife. 
The Ministry of Internal Affairs of Georgia – to investigate excessive use of force by the police. The police should refrain from disproportionate interference in religious confrontation; 
Local self-government agencies – to avoid aggravation of discriminatory environment by expressing their position, and to take into equal consideration interests and lawful demands of representatives of all religious confessions; 
The Minister of Justice – to refrain from making statements that amount to discrimination of followers of a concrete religion. 
Orthodox Church – to refrain from interfering in affairs that fall under the exclusive purview of the state and to urge the clergymen to treat other confessions with more tolerance; 
Media – provide active and objective coverage of religious minority issues to promote public tolerance.