A series of attacks on religious minorities in Georgia has drawn attention to the deteriorating human rights situation in the former Soviet republic. Assailants believed to be members of the extremist Georgian Orthodox Jvari [ji-VAH-ree] group burned down Jehovah’s Witnesses meeting facilities. In a second attack, assailants ravaged the adjacent dwelling of the host of an annual Jehovah’s Witnesses meeting that was to have been held in the city of Kaspi.
These attacks were by no means isolated incidents. Indeed, violence against minority religious groups, especially Jehovah’s Witnesses, has increased dramatically over the past three years. According to the U.S. State Department’s report on international religious freedom, local police and security officials in Georgia during the past year “continued to harass nontraditional religious minority groups, particularly local and foreign missionaries, and were complicit -- or in some cases actually participated in or facilitated -- attacks against members of such groups.”
Moreover, Georgian police have failed to respond to attacks against members of Jehovah's Witnesses and other religious minorities by Orthodox extremists, largely followers of Father Basil Mkalavishvili [Mi-ka-la-vish-VEE-lee], a defrocked Orthodox priest. In one instance, a mob attacked a Pentecostal church during choir practice, injuring twelve people. Victims of such attacks have filed more than seven hundred criminal complaints, but the Georgian authorities have done nothing to stop the violence. No one has been held accountable and punished.
Human rights activists have also been targets. In July, in Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, a gang of unidentified men stormed the offices of the Liberty Institute, beating staff and destroying equipment. The Liberty Institute is one of Georgia’s leading human rights groups and has vigorously opposed the rise in mob violence against religious minorities.
Civil society has grown substantially in Georgia since it won independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. But mob violence against religious minorities, if allowed to continue, could reverse progress toward respect for human rights and the rule of law in Georgia. It is a basic democratic principle that citizens are entitled to equal protection under the law. And that certainly means stopping the violence against religious minorities in Georgia.