Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides for freedom of belief and religion, subject to considerations of public safety and the health and rights of others, and equality for all regardless of religion. It prohibits persecution based on religion and prohibits compelling anyone to express his or her opinion about religion. It also prohibits political parties that incite religious strife. The law provides for freedom of religious belief, denomination, and conscience, including the right to choose and change religious affiliation.
The constitution recognizes the GOC’s special role in the country’s history but stipulates the Church shall be independent from the state and that relations between the GOC and the state shall be governed by a constitutional agreement (concordat). The concordat grants the GOC rights not given to other religious groups, including legal immunity for its patriarch and a consultative role in government, especially in state education policies, and reiterates an exemption of Church clergy from military service (although by law, clergy from all religious groups are exempted). The concordat states that some of its provisions require additional legislation before they may be implemented, including the GOC’s right to a consultative role in state education policies. There is currently no implementing legislation for the concordat. Changes to or cancellation of the concordat require a three-fifths majority of parliament and the consent of the GOC.
A religious group may register with the National Agency of the Public Registry (NAPR) as a legal entity under public law or as a noncommercial entity. Both statuses offer equivalent benefits, including legal recognition, tax exemptions for donations and other “religious activities,” (a term not clearly defined by law), and the right to own property and open bank accounts. The civil code defines the activities and rights of denominations registered for legal entity under public law status. Unregistered religious groups may conduct religious activities but do not receive the legal status or benefits conferred on registered groups. Unregistered religious groups may have a charter and ownership of property may be based on that charter. The property should be registered with the National Registrar. They may maintain a bank account with a commercial bank, based on national bank regulations. Unregistered groups may also invite clergy to the country.
To register as a legal entity under public law, the law specifies a religious group must have a historic link with the country or be recognized as a religion “by the legislation of the member states of the Council of Europe.” A religious group must also submit to the NAPR information regarding its objectives and procedures and a list of its founders and members of its governing body. Religious groups registering as noncommercial entities do not have to demonstrate historic ties to the country or recognition by Council of Europe members but must submit to the NAPR similar information on their objectives, governing procedures, and names of founders and members of their governing body. There is no appeal mechanism for groups that are denied registration as a legal entity under public law, but they may reapply to NAPR.
The state recognizes only civil marriages; it does not recognize marriages conducted by the GOC or other religious groups, regardless of their registration status.
The law grants the GOC exceptions from several requirements applicable to other religious groups, including payment of taxes on the construction, restoration, and maintenance of religious buildings and the payment of taxes on property. It exempts the GOC, but not other religious groups, from taxes on “profit from the sale of crosses, candles, icons, books, and calendars used…for religious purposes.” In addition, the law states only the GOC may acquire nonagricultural state property through a direct sale by the government. Should other religious groups wish to acquire this type of property, they must participate in public tenders. Only the GOC has the right to acquire agricultural state property free of charge; all others must pay a fee. The law grants the Church ownership over state forests located near or adjacent to GOC churches and monasteries.
The criminal code prohibits interference with worship services, persecution of a person based on religious faith or belief, and interference with the establishment of a religious organization; the code does not define “establishment.” Interference with the establishment of a religious organization is punishable by a fine, “corrective labor” (community service) for up to one year, house arrest for six months to two years, or imprisonment for up to two years. Violations committed by public officials are considered abuses of power and are punishable by larger fines or longer terms of imprisonment if committed by force of arms or by insulting the dignity of a victim, although the law does not define “insult” and does not specify an amount or time limit for punishment under those circumstances. In cases of religious persecution, the perpetrator may face imprisonment for up to three years, depending on the use or threat of violence, his or her official position, and the damages caused. In cases of unlawful interference with the right to perform religious rituals involving the use or threat of violence, offenders may face imprisonment for up to two years; in cases where the offender holds an official position, the offender may face up to five years in prison.
According to a Ministry of Justice decree, accused and convicted individuals may meet only with spiritual representatives of the GOC and registered religious organizations. Prison regulations state prisoners have the right to possess and use religious literature and objects of worship.
The law prohibits restitution to religious organizations of religious buildings and their ruins previously owned by these groups and currently under state ownership, including historical religious buildings confiscated by the Soviet regime. The prohibition, however, does not apply to the GOC, which, per the terms of its concordat with the government, is entitled to receive all previously confiscated property. For other religious groups, the government, through NAPR, lends the property on a for-use-only basis to the groups as legal entities under public law; this is not considered a transfer of state property.
The law stipulates that five religious groups are eligible to receive government payments in compensation for damages they experienced during the totalitarian Soviet regime: the GOC, the Muslim community, represented by AMAG, the Roman Catholic Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church, and the Jewish community. According to the law, the government may not pay such compensation to any other religious group.
Although the law states that public schools may not be used for religious indoctrination, proselytizing, or forcible assimilation, the concordat accords the GOC the right to teach religious studies in public educational institutions; however, there is no implementing legislation allowing the GOC to do so. The concordat also authorizes the state to pay for Georgian Orthodox religious schools, although the government does not do so. The law states that students may pursue religious study and practice religious rituals on school grounds “of their own accord,” but only after school hours. Outside instructors, including clergy of any faith tradition, may only attend or direct students’ religious education or activities if students invite them to do so; school administration and teachers may not be involved in this process. The law includes no specific regulations for private religious schools. Private schools must follow the national curriculum, although they are free to add subjects, including religious studies, if they wish.
The MOIA’s Department of Human Rights is responsible for assessing whether crimes are motivated by religious hatred and for monitoring the quality of investigations into hate crimes.
By law, the Prosecutor General’s Office, which is separate from the MOIA, prosecutes human rights violations involving religious intolerance, while the Public Defender’s Office serves as the country’s human rights ombudsman and monitors complaints of restrictions on religious freedom. The Public Defender’s Office (Human Rights Ombudsperson) is a watchdog rather than an investigatory body; it and makes recommendations to the MOIA and the State Inspector Service. The Public Defender’s Office’s Tolerance Center (composed of leaders from minority religious groups) carries out educational activities and monitors and analyzes cases of religious and ethnic discrimination. It also coordinates the Council of Religions and Council of Ethnic Minorities, which are affiliated with the Public Defender’s Office. The Council of Religions has a civic mandate to protect religious freedom; facilitate a constructive multilateral dialogue among various religious groups; promote a tolerant, fair, and peaceful environment for religious groups; and engage religious minorities in the process of civic integration. It produces an annual report on the status of religious freedom in the country that includes policy recommendations.
The State Inspector Service, a separate investigative body from the Prosecutor General’s Office, investigates crimes such as torture, degrading treatment, and abuse of power or office perpetrated by law enforcement and public officials if committed with the use of force or in violation of human dignity and involving discriminatory elements, including religious motives. Following an investigation, the service may refer these cases to the Prosecutor General’s Office for prosecution. The service has never received any information on a religiously motivated crime since its creation in 2019.
The mandate of SARI, which is part of the Office of the Prime Minister, is to promote and ensure peaceful coexistence based on principles of equality and tolerance. Its responsibilities include researching the existing religious situation and reporting to the government, preparing recommendations and drafting legal acts pertaining to religion for government consideration, and serving as a consultative body and intermediary for the government in disputes arising between religious associations. SARI may issue nonbinding recommendations to relevant state institutions regarding approval of applications for the construction of religious buildings, determination of their locations, and transfer of such properties to religious organizations. By law, SARI distributes government compensation to the GOC and to Islamic, Jewish, Roman Catholic, and Armenian Apostolic religious organizations registered as legal entities under public law for “the material and moral damages inflicted upon them during the Soviet period.”
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
On June 30, the government ended a curfew that it had instituted in November 2020 in response to COVID-19, but some restrictions on large social gatherings remained in place. Prior to the end of the curfew, minority religious leaders and religious freedom NGOs stated curfew rules were not applied equally, as the government granted blanket exceptions for the GOC to organize gatherings on GOC holidays, including Orthodox Christmas Eve on January 6 and Orthodox Easter Eve on May 1, while other minority religious groups had to apply on each occasion for one-time exceptions for their holidays and to submit to SARI full lists of expected attendees. Critics said this created a barrier to freedom of assembly for religious purposes and caused concern that the State Security Service was tracking minority religious groups’ members. According to a TDI report on religious freedom, the government stated in response to criticism that any religious group could submit a list of clergy and parishioners to SARI, and it would issue one-time curfew passes for those on the list. TDI, the Union of Georgian Muslims, the Supreme Theological Division of the Muslims of Georgia, the Evangelical Church, the Evangelical Baptist Church, the Church of the Gospel Faith, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, the Word of Life Evangelical Church, the Friends Society – Quakers, the Svedenburg Religious Society, the Church of the Anointed Christians, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Salvation Army called this process discriminatory and an unjustified collection of personal data and did not apply for permits.
From June 30 to the end of the year, permits for public gatherings, including religious gatherings, were no longer required, although the government issued recommendations to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. At year’s end, however, restrictions remained on “large-scale” social gatherings that applied to wedding receptions.
On August 1, Nika Gvaramia, director general of the pro-opposition television channel Mtavari Arkhi TV, reported the State Security Service was spying on clergy, including GOC clergy, among other groups. In September, transcripts of telephone conversations were published on the internet and widely covered in the media. These appeared to document widespread surveillance by the State Security Service of religious leaders, including their interactions with political leaders, journalists, and foreign diplomats. The government and ruling Georgian Dream Party denied the legitimacy of these documents, while NGOs, journalists, and religious leaders stated many of the documents were accurate. Numerous political and civil society leaders expressed concern that the State Security Service monitored private conversations with their personal religious or spiritual leaders and said such activity had a chilling effect on religious freedom, as it confirmed their suspicion the State Security Service was monitoring religious groups.
In September, the NAPR registered the Jehovah’s Witnesses Christian Organization in Georgia as a legal entity under public law. Previously, the group was registered as a noncommercial entity. The group stated it sought the change to bring the Jehovah’s Witnesses Christian Organization in Georgia to an equal legal status as other recognized religious groups. Because noncommercial entities and legal entities under public law receive the same benefits, the group did not gain additional benefits. The NAPR denied the registration applications of six organizations due to “non-existence of legal grounds envisioned by legislation”: the Evangelical Church – Source of Life; Protestant Confession – Presbyterianism; the Georgian Christian Evangelical Protestant Church – Biblical Friends (Quakers); the Caucasus Orthodox Catacomb Church; the Evangelical Church; and the Georgian Christian Protestant Church – Eternal Freedom.
Most prisons continued to have Georgian Orthodox chapels and areas for prayer. Authorities allowed Muslims to pray in their cells or prayer areas and to possess Qurans and prayer rugs. According to SARI and Catholic, Armenian Apostolic, Baptist, Muslim, and Jewish groups, prisoners had access to counseling and services appropriate to their religious group upon request. The government provided accommodation for the dietary restrictions of Muslim and Jewish prisoners. During religious holidays, prisoners were exempt from fulfilling their regular duties.
According to NGOs and minority religious groups, many religious issues, such as tax exemptions and restitution issues, continued to lack a clear legislative framework. SARI and some religious groups’ representatives, including members of the Jewish community and the Armenian Apostolic Church, said they remained in favor of drafting a new, broader “law on religion” to define which groups would be eligible for these and other benefits and to address issues pertaining to the registration and legal status of religious groups and the teaching of religion in public schools. Many civil society representatives and members of other religious groups, including some individuals from the Muslim community, the Catholic Church, and the Evangelical Baptist Church, however, remained opposed, arguing such legislation would create a hierarchy of religious groups and allow the government to discriminate against smaller religious communities and increase its leverage over them. Critics of such a law also stated it might include new criteria for registration that would be difficult for nontraditional religious groups to meet. They expressed concern that it would also expand the role of SARI, which some smaller groups said they viewed as an entity that promoted government control of religious organizations rather than a protector of religious freedom. They advocated instead for making benefits available to all religious groups or to none.
Parliament again failed to amend the law granting the GOC tax and property privileges not available to other religious groups, despite the Constitutional Court ruling in 2018 that the law was unconstitutional and instructing parliament to make legislative changes to either abolish the privileges or grant them to all religious organizations no later than December 31, 2018. Although the Constitutional Court’s ruling was legally binding, the court had no means to enforce parliament’s compliance.
On November 16, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled against the government, finding police had abused and discriminated against four Muslim Georgians during their arrest while at a protest in Mokhe village in 2014. The four were protesting the government’s efforts to forcibly remove a mosque’s minaret in the village of Chela in Samtskhe-Javakheti Region after the municipal government stated it had been constructed without a proper permit. The ECHR awarded three claimants 1,800 euros ($2,000) each and one claimant 3,900 euros ($4,400) compensation.
In July, TDI filed a case with the Constitutional Court, disputing the constitutionality of provisions in the law prohibiting restitution to religious organizations other than the GOC of religious buildings and ruins they previously owned that were currently under state ownership. TDI stated the disparate treatment constituted discrimination toward minority religious communities. On August 6, the Constitutional Court registered the lawsuit, but at year’s end, it had not yet decided whether it would hear the case.
Many religious property cases pending before the courts and with SARI failed to make progress during the year. Religious groups said this was partly due to institutional inefficiencies and partly due to disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
On April 30, the Constitutional Court agreed to hear a case brought by nine religious groups alleging that the GOC’s exclusive property tax exemption on land used for noneconomic purposes violated constitutional guarantees of equality before the law. The court ruled in 2020 the plaintiffs’ case had merit and that it would accept it for substantive consideration. On December 28, the Constitutional Court combined this case with two other cases submitted by TDI during the year. TDI’s first case, submitted to the Constitutional Court in April on behalf of nine religious associations, disputed the constitutionality of import tax regulations that allowed the GOC to import religious items free of duty while requiring all other religious groups to pay tax on them. On June 23, the court partially accepted the constitutional claim of the nine religious associations for consideration on the merits. In the second case, submitted in July, TDI challenged the constitutionality of the law prohibiting religious organizations, other than the GOC, from regaining full legal ownership of property that was seized by the Soviet regime and currently under state ownership.
At year’s end, the Constitutional Court had not ruled on whether it would hear another case brought by nine religious organizations, Christian and Muslim, challenging restrictions on the rights of religious organizations other than the GOC to purchase or exchange state-owned property. The court heard arguments on the case in early 2020.
NGOs and some Muslim community leaders again stated the government continued to favor and influence the state-funded AMAG religious group, including by selectively transferring land to AMAG and influencing the selection of AMAG’s religious leader. The groups again said AMAG was a “Soviet-style” organization that served as a tool of the state to monitor and control religious groups. Several Muslim groups remained critical of AMAG for insisting it represented all Muslim communities in the country within one organization.
The Armenian Apostolic Church continued to petition SARI for restitution of five churches in Tbilisi and one in Akhaltsikhe, all of which the GOC also claimed and which authorities registered as state property. As of year’s end, SARI had still not responded to any of the Church’s 57 petitions, 20 of which it filed in 2015 and 37 in 2018, for ownership or right-of-usage status. The Church reported it operated all 57 churches in the country but did not own any of them. The Church also stated it had not petitioned NAPR during the year to register them as Church-owned property. According to the Armenian Apostolic Church, SARI said in 2020 that the Church had not provided sufficient evidence of ownership but that it was in communication with the Church and expressed willingness to cooperate in the future. According to Armenian Apostolic Church representatives, they did not engage SARI or petition NAPR on this issue during the year, as they did not see such efforts as productive.
Muslim community members continued to state there was a lack of transparency in government decisions regarding construction of mosques. The Muslim community continued to dispute the government’s ownership, as a legacy of the Soviet era, of mosques in Kvemo Kartli, Adigeni, and Adjara. The government also said that, in some cases, the existing mosques were former Georgian Orthodox houses of worship converted during the Ottoman and Persian empires or were constructed during those periods on land where Georgian Orthodox houses of worship had once stood. AMAG reported that when the government transferred state-owned mosques, it only did so for AMAG to use for a 49-year or unlimited period; the government did not transfer full ownership of the property or land.
On September 13, the Kutaisi Court of Appeal upheld a 2019 decision by the Batumi City Court that the Batumi city government had discriminated against the New Mosque Construction Fund (an entity representing members of the Batumi Muslim community seeking to establish a new mosque) by denying, in 2017, the permits necessary to build a new mosque on land the fund owned. The NGO Social Justice Center (formerly Human Right Education Monitoring Center) reported the Batumi city government appealed this decision to the Supreme Court. The New Mosque Construction Fund filed its own cassation appeal, which was pending at year’s end, requesting that the appeal by the Batumi city government be partially annulled. If the cassation appeal were to be granted, the Batumi city government would be ordered to issue written consent to start the first stage of construction permitting for the new mosque, according to the Social Justice Center.
The government continued to pay subsidies for the restoration of religious properties it considered national cultural heritage sites. The National Agency for Cultural Heritage, housed within the Ministry of Education, Science, Culture, and Sport, allocated 2.25 million lari ($732,000) during the year for the restoration of religious monuments, all belonging to the GOC, compared with 1.91 million lari ($621,000) in 2020.
On April 12, the Supreme Court upheld a 2018 lower court decision that the Kobuleti city government must connect an Islamic boarding school in Kobuleti, near Batumi, to utility services. The court ordered the Kobuleti city government and a company contracted for the work to connect water and sewage systems to the school, but at year’s end neither the municipality nor the company had taken action, and the school was unable to enforce the court decision. The boarding school, which remained incomplete, was the subject of anti-Turkish and anti-Muslim protests in 2014.
The GOC did not offer any formal religious studies classes in public institutions. Although the GOC had the right to have direct involvement in public institutions, such as schools, under the concordat, the government did not define clear legal structures for it to do so. The Social Justice Center said that, unlike in previous years, it had not received any reports of visits to classes in public schools by GOC clergy during regular school hours, a practice prohibited by law.
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, most schools continued to rely on online instruction from January until September. TDI stated the Ministry of Education did not report to it any complaints of religious discrimination, but TDI remained concerned that students were hesitant to report such cases for fear of reprisal from fellow students, teachers, or school officials.
As in previous years, TDI stated that the MOIA generally correctly applied the appropriate articles of the criminal code in most cases and the quality of investigations of crimes motivated by religious hatred continued to improve. The institute stated, however, that the Prosecutor General’s Office continued to fail to determine whether an individual was a “victim” of a crime under law (defined as a person who has incurred moral, physical, or material damage as a result of a crime) or to indict individuals for religiously motivated crimes.
Following a 2020 ruling by the Tbilisi City Court that the government was obliged to accommodate students’ religious beliefs when scheduling national examinations, TDI reported that during the year all national exams were scheduled on weekdays. In 2020, TDI had represented two Seventh-day Adventist university applicants who were contesting the scheduling of an entrance exam on a Saturday, in the Tbilisi City Court case. TDI had also asked the court to find that the Ministry of Education had discriminated against the applicants because of their religion and to award “symbolic compensation” of one lari ($0.33) for “moral damages,” but at year’s end, the court had not yet issued a ruling on the matter.
During the year, the government directly allocated from the state budget 25 million lari ($8.13 million) to the GOC and SARI reported it allocated 3.5 million lari ($1.14 million) to the four other eligible religious communities to provide partial compensation for damage caused during the Soviet regime. The 3.5 million lari ($1.14 million) was distributed as follows: 2.2 million lari ($715,000) to the Muslim community, represented by AMAG; 400,000 lari ($130,000) to the Roman Catholic Church; 600,000 lari ($195,000) to the Armenian Apostolic Church; and 300,000 lari ($97,600) to the Jewish community. These were the same as the 2020 amounts. SARI again said the remaining one million lari ($325,000) would be distributed among the religious communities “later.” SARI’s position was that the payments were of “partial and of symbolic character,” and that the government continued to take into account levels of damage and “present day negative conditions” of religious groups in determining compensation. NGOs and religious groups continued to criticize the exclusion of other religious groups, including the Evangelical Lutheran Church, from the legislation designating the five groups eligible to receive compensation, and they questioned the criteria the government used to select which groups received compensation.
At year’s end, the MOIA Department of Human Rights conducted seven in-person training sessions for a total of 274 employees in Tbilisi and Batumi, as well as three online sessions. At these events, it trained MOIA employees on aspects of religious discrimination and hate crimes. Fifteen employees completed the ministry’s remote learning course on hate crimes investigations. In June, in partnership with a program by the Council of Europe on fighting discrimination, hate crimes, and hate speech, 20 staff members of the MOIA’s territorial and structural units received training on issues pertaining to crimes motivated by intolerance. Also in June, 40 managers participated in a four-day training course organized by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to increase awareness of issues of discrimination (including religious discrimination) and related crimes.
During the year, the media outlet Alt-info, widely described as far right, repeatedly aired criticism of Turkey and Islam. On March 29, it broadcast a statement by Georgian Idea Party (also widely considered to be far right) leader Guram Palavandishvili, who said, in part, “Why do we want Turkey, is it not an occupier? Today we do not want Islam either… We are unequivocally against their [Turkish] politics, which is our occupier, and against their religion, which is confronting our religion.”
The Public Defender’s Office and NGOs reported that in January, a ruling Georgian Dream Party member of parliament, commenting on violence between ethnic Georgian Christians and ethnic Georgian Muslims in the village of Buknari over the construction of a mosque, described the violence as between “Georgians and Muslims.” The Public Defender’s Office, in its Special Report on Combating and Preventing Discrimination and the State of Equality, called the statement “problematic.”