Tariel Nakaidze, one of the founders of the Union of Georgian Muslims. (DF Watch.)

TBILISI, DFWatch–Years have passed without a solution to the need for a new mosque in Batumi. The governments keep promising Muslims that they will make a decision, but according to Muslims, both the central and the local government are attempting to delay the issue and avoid solving it.

DF Watch again visited Orta Jame, the only mosque in Batumi, to attend Friday’s prayer. Hundreds of Muslims had to stay outside the mosque, praying in the yard and street, as the mosque cannot accommodate all of them. We spoke with one of the founders of the Union of Georgian Muslims, Tariel Nakaidze, who told us more about the background of this story:

When did it first become clear that there was a need for a new mosque in Batumi? httpv://youtu.be/CW92J0RUu5M

It became necessary about 15 years ago, and then we started different activities, including appealing to the government to allocate a location for construction. In Batumi there is large part of the population, also tourists, who come here and have the same religion, Islam, and so this also made it necessary to construct a large mosque. But this issue was followed by many rumors, as if constructing a new mosque was something Turkey had ordered to restore its cultural heritage, but I think this started more on a political background, and Muslims didn’t participate in it due to the simple reason that Muslims were only asking for a new mosque and nothing like granting this issue any kind of international standards.

The government again changed its promise about a new mosque and now promises to expand Orta Jame instead of constructing a new one. Is it possible to expand this mosque?


Muslims praying on the street in Batumi because the mosque is too small. (DF Watch.)

I think this is absolutely impossible due to several conditions. The first one is that this is cultural heritage and its scope for expansion is limited, it cannot be expanded. Secondly, the mosque has its own form. If it does not fit in one space, it cannot be expanded and additional space just cannot be added to it, for prayers to be conducted. On the property where the expansion of the mosque is planned, there are people living and resettling them away from this place will entail a great amount of financing. So this just raises a serious suspicion that the government absolutely doesn’t try to solve the issue, but only tries to drag it out in time. We are told that Mr Ivanishvili, the former prime minister, but not the state, has allocated ten million laris (USD 6 million) in order to purchase the property where people will move to live in case the mosque is expanded. I ask the following: why can’t the government just allocate a property and maybe even sell the location to a person who then will construct the new mosque without torment? This is much simpler and it is possible to start this process much sooner. But there is another issue here. There is a part of society which unfairly demands not to construct a mosque in Batumi and the government is following this illegal demand by these people. The government is loyal to this absolutely illegal demand and tries not to irritate this part of society, and I think the government cannot fulfill its own duty by doing this.

The process develops so that constructing a new mosque is not just an issue to satisfy the demand of Muslims. Constructing a mosque is a question of developing democracy in Georgia. If we aren’t able to solve the issue of constructing a new mosque somewhere here, this means that we aren’t able to protect and ensure human rights, for which the government must be serving as a guarantee. So we think that the decision by the government, which was by the way shared by a mufti appointed by the government, was unfair. We of course won’t give up the issue of constructing a new mosque. If the government allows such a precedent to be established, this means that in the future when any minority representatives ask to construct something, the majority, which is sure that they will achieve what they want, will always try not to let them construct what they want – and by the way, this really happens, especially in the regions, for example to Jehovah’s Witnesses and other religious groups.

Why did the head of Georgia’s Muslim Department, Jemal Paksadze, agree to the government’s proposal about expanding the mosque?

Mr Jemal Paksadze, who is also a mufti, and the Department of Muslims I would say is free of religion and is founded by Christians. We have been talking about this for a long time and still think this is the case. Unfortunately, the mufti says the same things as the prime minister, but this doesn’t mean that the position of Muslims is the same. The mufti, unfortunately, doesn’t present the real opinion of Muslims, which is a problem, because the government thinks the attitude of Muslims is the same, so do the international organizations, who think that there is only one Department of Muslims in Georgia and that it governs the whole of this religion in Georgia. This is not so, because there are a number of Islamic organizations in Georgia, legally absolutely independent, and so the mufti and the department doesn’t represent what Muslims think.

It is very important: Why must someone appoint a head of Muslims Department, why cannot Muslim elect their own leader? What results can this appointment bring ? How can Muslims follow this appointed person? And even though this department and its head means nothing to me, he still speaks in the name of Islam and Muslims, and he does it in a way which is completely inappropriate for a cleric, for example when he compares the prime minister to David the Builder [Georgian King].

The Muslims Department is a body created by the government. But does it have any religious meaning?

This is a body created by the government and the government created it in order to govern the Muslim community as it wishes to. The government wishes to grant an advantage, as if it is the Department of Muslims and there is no other department. But the reality is completely different. Creating this body was followed by the creation of 15 other religious organizations. Thank God, they cannot accuse the Union of Georgian Muslims, because we were established in 2008 and our goal was educational – to teach what Islam is, what Christianity is, etc.

[Former President] Mikheil Saakashvili back then founded the Department of Muslims, and the most insulting thing for Muslims was the following: you imagine a Muslim being a member of the Holy Synod. Imagine me being a member there, to better imagine what I am talking about. Even if they had offered me the position, I would never become a member of the Synod, for one simple reason: I think that I would insult the followers of this religion. Unfortunately, the people who founded the Muslims Department are Christians.

Recently, the government said that it is about to establish a commission which will work on the issue of constructing the new mosque, with government members, NGOs and representatives of Muslim community. Who is involved in this? The Department of Muslims or maybe someone else?

Set up commissions if you don’t want to do anything at all – this is the goal of this commission as well, if there will be any commission at all. I’ve several times met with Mr Jemal Paksadze and he is uncertain about what should happen, what we are dealing with, he has no idea. He is a presenter and conductor of the policy of what he has been instructed to, but in fact he has no idea how the mosque should be expanded. We have more information about this than those who are working on  this issue. It is absolutely unclear how they will manage to resettle the population from there, because it is related to serious means. They must pay millions to force these people to leave and then expand the mosque, while constructing a new mosque would cost half of this, or less.

But the reason for the resistance against building a new mosque is quite different. Constructing a new mosque, such a broadly publicized issue, feeds into some people’s public relations efforts. I especially mean the Orthodox Church. It doesn’t have any other opponents. During the Soviet Union, Georgian Muslim had to have two faces: At home he was a Muslim, outside he was an Atheist. When the Soviet Union collapsed, this principle remained, but now outside they are Christians and at home Muslims. Why? When the Soviet Union collapsed and Zviad Gamsakhurdia became president, on his first visit to Adjara he said: Adjarians, you are Georgians too. Even in the most elite part of society, his quote was criticized: Why am I, then? Why aren’t you saying the same in Samegrelo about Megrelians, you are Georgians too? Or in Svaneti: Svanetians, you are Georgians too. Of course it has its reasons. The worst thing is that the Muslim community was too weak then, in regard to management and education. Representatives of the so-called Adjarian elite were abusing Islam and Turks in their writings, groups which were perceived the same very often, but right before death they were asking children for the mullah to bury them. And so, many were Christians outside and Muslim at home and this was quite a long period, especially in 1990s.

Openly constructing a new mosque with official permission from the state will change this kind of psychology, which is not profitable for the Orthodox Church. Children now believe that since they are Muslims, they cannot achieve much in life, and so they have to hide their religion outside of home. Openly constructing a new mosque will change the attitude, and this is not beneficial to those who want Christianization of the local population. The problem in this region is quite big and expanding the mosque contributes to strengthening the problem. But constructing a new mosque would somewhat help to solve this problem. Orthodox people must psychologically know that no-one will ask them whether a new mosque should be constructed in Batumi or any other prayer house any other place only if this doesn’t violate any legislative frameworks.

People were attacked in Nigvziani, not allowed to pray and no-one was punished. It was followed by the Tsintskaro incident, and again no-one was punished. Then in Samtatskharo, people still cannot pray until now. If we aren’t able to let people go and pray there, if we aren’t able to stop this chain of events and prove that we have a state which is secular, which governs the country, and that religion has its own function… No-one has a right to interrupt any religion. The majority of people are Muslims in the Khulo region. If there was the same situation there and Christians were harassed in Khulo, we should hold the same position and protect them.

If, let’s say, the local population is not against constructing a new mosque, and the opponent, as you say, is the Patriarchate, can we say that the government, by not granting permission to the Muslim community to construct a new mosque, is afraid of the Patriarchate or doesn’t want to take a step against the will of the Church?

Of course, that’s exactly what I am saying. Bishop Dimitry came here and conducted a protest prayer. When a person with such high religious rank comes and conducts a protest prayer against allowing the construction of a new mosque, this brings us to a quite serious problem and the government is seriously afraid. That’s why we, Muslims, shouldn’t stop.

Last year it seemed that the local government was ready to approve the appeal by Muslims about allocating a location for a mosque. What happened, why did this promise change once again?

The actions of Muslims in this period was very important. When the situation gets tense for some reason, we try to solve it so that it fits in with legal and democratic ways and what should happen happens. Last year, there was a political fever in that period. Election, the issue of the minaret in Chela, future election, etc. In addition, speculation about constructing ‘Aziz Mosque’ damaged all these processes. We tried to not let the issue get frozen but follow up the events. We sent a request to grant permission. There was only verbal promise with, a goal to drag the process out in time and temporarily solve the issue. We were trying not to let this issue become politicized, because religion must be separated from state policy, but of course some part of religion is politics, but this shouldn’t be subject to manipulation. A month ago, we created a fund for the construction of a mosque and began collecting money, because if the government doesn’t allocate money for us, we would have money to purchase land, start construction within legal frames and step by step construct a new mosque and achieve the goal.

A few weeks ago, when the election campaign was almost over, the Muslim community said that they would start demonstrating to demand the construction of a new mosque. After this, the PM even came to Khulo before the election. There was a promise that ten million is allocated, and this money is already at the prime minister, comes from the former prime minister, and as soon as the election is over, work on this issue will start. They called on us not to demonstrate and they would give a final answer at the end of the festival of Bayram. You see how absurd this is, they point to Bayram, but it was a celebration and we avoided critizing them.

Do you know where that ten million is now, money which Ivanishvili allegedly allocated for constructing the new mosque? Was it transferred somewhere?

Ivanishvili said that he wants to build a mosque for Muslims. Today, they say that he allocated ten million for this. No-one has seen the money, but no-one says that this money doesn’t exist. This also makes me suspicious that mentioning this money was necessary to prove that they are able to expand the mosque and resettle the population. Moving those people away from there in fact will require ten million. It is in the city center and there are several buildings which may cost more than two or three millions. This is also dragging it out in time. We will do it today or tomorrow, set up a commission, etc.

Are they any design drawings for how to expand the new mosque?

Nothing like that exists. In fact, there are several places in Batumi where Muslims go and pray. Tomorrow, other houses will open, the day after tomorrow, something else. No-one can halt or stop prayer.