religious freedom

Religious freedom in Georgia

The Georgian Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice.

Citizens generally do not interfere with traditional religious groups; however, there is growing suspicion of nontraditional religious groups.

Religious demography

The country has a total area of approximately 25,900 square miles (67,100 km²), and its population is 5.5 million.

According to a 2002 census, 83.8% of the Georgian population identified themselves as Georgian Orthodox, 9.9% Muslim, 3.9% Armenian Apostolic Church, and 0.8% Roman Catholicism. Orthodox churches serving other non-Georgian ethnic groups, such as Russians and Greeks, are subordinate to the Georgian Orthodox Church. Non-Georgian Orthodox Churches generally use the language of their communicants.

In addition, there are a small number of mostly ethnic Russian believers from two dissenter Christian movements: the ultra-Orthodox Old Believers, and the Spiritual Christians (the Molokans and the Doukhobors). The majority of these groups have left the country since the mid-1980s.

Under Soviet rule, the number of active churches and priests declined sharply and religious education was nearly nonexistent. Membership in the Georgian Orthodox Church has increased markedly since independence in 1991. The church maintains 4 theological seminaries, 2 academies, several schools, and 27 church dioceses; and has 700 priests, 250 monks, and 150 nuns. The Church is headed by the Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia, Ilia II, whose see is in Tbilisi.

Several religions, including the Armenian Apostolic Church, Roman Catholicism, Judaism, and Islam, traditionally have coexisted with Georgian Orthodoxy. A large number of Armenians live in the southern Javakheti region, in which they constitute a majority of the population. Islam is prevalent among Azerbaijani and north Caucasus ethnic communities in the eastern part of the country and also is found in the regions of Ajaria and Abkhazia. About 5% of the population are nominally Muslim.

Judaism, which has been present since ancient times, is practiced in a number of communities throughout the country, especially in the largest cities, Tbilisi and Kutaisi. Approximately 8,000 Jews remain in the country, following two large waves of emigration, the first in the early 1970s and the second in the period of perestroika during the late 1980s. Before then, Jewish officials estimate, there were as many as 100,000 Jews in the country. There also are small numbers of Lutheran worshipers, mostly among descendants of German communities that first settled in the country several hundred years ago. A small number of Kurdish Yezidis have lived in the country for centuries.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Protestant denominations have become more prominent. They include Baptists (composed of Russian, Georgian, Armenian, Ossetian, and Kurdish groups); Seventh-day Adventists; Pentecostals (both Georgian and Russian); Jehovah's Witnesses (local representatives state that the group has been in the country since 1953 and has about 15,000 adherents); the New Apostolic Church; and the Assemblies of God. There also are a few Bahá'ís and Hare Krishnas. There are no available membership numbers for these groups but, combined, their membership most likely totals fewer than 100,000 persons.

Status of freedom of religion

Legal and policy framework

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government respects this right in practice. The Constitution recognizes the special role of the Georgian Orthodox Church in the country's history, but also stipulates the independence of the Church from the State.

There are no laws regarding the registration of religious organizations. Religious groups that perform humanitarian services may be registered as charitable organizations, although religious and other organizations may perform humanitarian services without registration.

During the Soviet era, the Georgian Orthodox Church largely was suppressed, as were many other religious institutions; many churches were destroyed or turned into museums, concert halls, and other secular establishments. As a result of new policies regarding religion implemented by the Soviet Government in the late 1980s, the present Patriarch began reconsecrating churches formerly closed throughout the country. The Church remains very active in the restoration of these religious facilities and lobbies the Government for the return of properties that were held by the Church before the Bolshevik Revolution. (Church authorities have claimed that 20 to 30% of the land at one time belonged to the Church.)

On March 30, 2001, Parliament amended the Constitution to allow for ultimate adoption of a concordat between the Church and the State, supported by the Church, which would define relations between the two. While a final concordat draft had not been completed by mid-2001, earlier versions covered several controversial topics, including transfer to the Church of ownership of church treasures expropriated during the Soviet period and currently held in state museums and repositories; government compensation to the Church for moral and material damage inflicted by the Soviets; and government assistance in establishing after-school Orthodox religious courses in educational institutions and Orthodox chaplaincies in the military and in prisons. The prospect of such a concordat has raised concerns among nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that believe that it would discriminate against religious minorities. However, parliamentary leaders have indicated that prior to adoption, the final concordat draft will be sent to the Council of Europe, European Parliament, and European Union for informal expert analysis, to ensure that it accords with European norms and the country's international legal obligations. the Georgian government being under pressure from Orthodox Church refused to sign an other agreement between the Vatican and the Georgian government over envisaging guarantees of religious freedom and legal rights for Catholics in Georgia. In September 2003, former Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze made a last minute decision not to sign this agreement with the Vatican after a protest rally took place in Tbilisi, provoked from and backed by the Georgian Orthodox Church. As a result, Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, then Secretary for the Holy See's Relations with Foreign States, who arrived in Tbilisi to sign this agreement, had to leave Georgia empty-handedly.

Societal attitudes

The public's attitude towards religion is ambivalent. Although many residents are not particularly observant, the link between Georgian Orthodoxy and Georgian ethnic and national identity is strong.

Despite their tolerance toward minority religious groups traditional to the country--including Catholics, Armenian Apostolic Christians, Jews, and Muslims--citizens remain very apprehensive about Protestants and other nontraditional religions, which they see as taking advantage of the populace's economic hardship by gaining membership through handing out economic assistance to converts.

The Georgian Orthodox Church withdrew its membership from the World Council of Churches in 1997 in order to appease clerics strongly opposed to some of the Council's requirements and methods of operation and thereby avert a schism within the Church. Some senior church leaders remain highly exclusionary and profess theirs as the "one true faith." Some Protestant groups--especially evangelical groups--have been criticized by church officials and nationalist politicians as subversive. Eleven leaders of the Georgian Orthodox Church have argued that Christian missionaries should confine their activities to non-Christian areas.

The Muslim and Jewish communities report that they have encountered few societal problems. There is no pattern of anti-Semitism. In the past, President Shevardnadze has made statements criticizing anti-Semitic acts.

See also

External links

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