TBILISI, DFWatch–After a year of religious conflict in three Georgian villages, neither Christians nor Muslims are fully satisfied with the way the problem was solved.
The Christians do not exclude that conflict might erupt again, while the Muslims still have no prayer house in one village.
Both sides see the actions taken by the government differently. Also, a new study has revealed that locals think the conflict was a result of provocation, because they had almost no religious controversy until 2012.
The reason for the confrontation between Muslims and Christians is prayer houses in villages located in three different regions of Georgia. Nigvziani, where the first conflict took place in 2010, involving Christian and Muslim communities, is located in Guria, in the west of Georgia.
The other two villages which have experienced religious conflicts are Tsintskaro and Samtatskaro, located in the eastern part of the country in Kvemo Kartli and Kakheti respectively.
The first conflict in Nigvziani
A study done by the Human Rights Education and Monitoring Center (EMC) shows that the conflict in Nigvziani began in 2010, when Muslims decided to open a prayer house. According to the local mufti, Badri Kakhadze, the local municipality was against the plans and instead of a prayer house offered to provide transportation for Muslims to go and pray in Kobuleti, a seaside resort with a mosque. This was not reported by the media and stayed off the public’s radar until the conflict escalated later.
The confrontation became apparent again on October 26, 2012, when during the Muslim Bayram celebrations, 150 Christians blocked the way for Muslims returning from prayers. Christians gathered and demanded to dismantle the prayer house which opened two months prior and hosted around 50-70 Muslims regularly.
On November 5, Minister of Justice Tea Tsulukiani proposed to the Patriarchate, the ruling body of the Georgian Orthodox Church, to mediate in the conflict.
On November 9, the traditional prayers were held peacefully, and soon Muslims were able to open their first prayer house.
Local Christians are unhappy about the way the conflict was resolved and do not exclude the possibility that it might erupt again. They maintain that the National Movement Party (UNM) of former president Mikheil Saakashvili, in exchange for their electoral votes, promised Muslims to open the prayer house before the election, but Muslims reject this version of events.
The Muslim Community see the role played by the central government in resolving the conflict in a positive light, but think that the local government played a rather negative role in the conflict and did nothing to resolve it.
One of the Muslim residents interviewed by EMC said: “The local government fomented people against us. It was the government who stirred up the conflict.”
At the same time, Christians think that conflict was largely resolved by the clergy; however, they express dissatisfaction with the result: letting Muslims have their prayer house. They blame the clergy of having curbed the Christians and allowing the conflict to settle down.
According to local residents, the police was quite passive throughout the conflict and did not intervene to stop the offences. Local Muslims claim that when the mufti was barred from entering the prayer house, the police did not intervene. They stood and watched during one other incident, while Muslims were being insulted and only started to carry out their duties only after ordered to do so by a political decision.
Continuation of religious conflict in Tsintskaro
In Tsintskaro, the first incidents occurred only when the crosses of common Muslim and the Christian cemetery gates were cut down in November 2012. Angry Christians assaulted Haji Marad Ghorjomelidze and verbally abused him, blaming him of tearing down crosses, but the haji denies that.
On November 30, 2012 at 12:30, around 30 minutes before the prayers, up to 40 local Christians, mostly men, came to the prayer house and prevented the Muslim community from praying.
The village trustee, Tamaz Mosidze, stated in his interview to the media on November 30, 2012, that the conflict should be resolved in favor of the majority and the rights of the local Muslim community were not violated since they could travel to the neighboring villages to pray.
As of today, Friday prayers are held in the prayer house and some 30 local Muslims regularly attend. Their numbers usually increase during religious holidays.
A Christian woman from Adjara told EMC: “This was probably like a ticking bomb plotted by the UNM to collect votes. This happened before the elections. Muslims had a prayer house, but people did not know about it. This fact therefore surfaced when the elections were over.”
Both, Christian and Muslim side think the Georgian patriarch played a significant role in resolving the conflict. Muslims expressed dissatisfaction with the role the central government played. Their representative wanted to meet the local Christians, but paid less attention to the Muslim community.
The conflict in Nigvziani ended with worse results for Muslims
The last case of religious confrontation was observed in the village Samtatskaro in Kakheti, 141 kms east of Tbilisi.
This case is different from the previous ones; it was lengthier and more serious. Also, unlike Nigvziani and Tsintskaro, here the Muslim community could not manage to exercise their right to Friday prayers during the conflict.
It began on May 24, 2013, when a group of around 50 local Christians intruded and verbally abused the Muslims at a new building they had bought which was supposed to be the first prayer house for Muslims in the village.
They took the prayer carpet, the Quran, and the table where the Quran was placed and took them out into the street. At that moment, Gulnara Nadirashvili, the village trustee was at the spot as well. According to Haji Suliko Khozrevanidze, the policemen were at the prayer house at that moment, but did not intervene.
From morning on Friday, June 7, the local Muslims gathered in front of the prayer house and repeatedly said that it was impossible to open the prayer house, as there was no Muslim parish in the village. After June 28, no Friday prayers have been conducted in Samtatskaro.
In a statement published the Public Defender later said that on June 7, Interior Ministry personnel threatened Suliko Khozrevanidze with detainment, told him he would “rot in prison” and spoke to him in a sarcastic manner. On July 8, a local, Haji Suliko Khozrevanidze, left Samtatskaro village.
According to the haji and the rest of the Muslim community, the local government contributed to escalate the conflict, blaming village trustee Gulnara Nadirashvili of being involved in the conflict and taking sides.
Khozrevanidze recalled she said, ‘I am against you praying’. And she was against the establishment of the prayer house altogether.
Nadirashvili said in an interview recorded during the course of the study that no conflict took place in the village. She also denies that any violent act against Muslims was observed during the course of the conflict. According to her, there are almost no Muslims in the village any more.
“The majority of them converted to Christianity, and a few Muslims who live here pray in their houses. We have never had a problem with it,” said Nadirashvili.
The state did not have any clear cut strategy on how to resolve the conflict justly and to respect religious freedom. Its effort, however, were only aimed at preventing further tensions based on religious grounds. During the conflict, the state refused to intervene but delegated this role to the dominant religious actors, or rather to the dominant religious organization.
The findings of the study also indicate that every consecutive conflict has been more severe in terms of human rights violations and that the incidents had become more and more prevalent.
According to EMC, even though high ranking officials issued considerable statements referring to the importance of protecting religious pluralism and tolerance, the government still failed to fulfill its exclusive function as a human rights defender by not responding to violations, and instead trusting clergymen to solve the conflicts.
Such depreciation of the government’s role caused the conflict to spread to other regions, be more intense and askew the secular balance. Moreover, the government assessed the ongoing conflicts as artificially provoked and isolated, and by doing so excluded the possibility of assessing them adequately and approaching a resolution in a complex manner, the organization concludes.