Eka Beselia, head of the human rights committee. (Interpressnews.)

TBILISI, DFWatch–Georgia might bring in a new law that makes it a crime to offend ‘religious feelings’.

A member of parliament from the ruling Georgian Dream coalition has submitted a bill in parliament which was supported by the human rights committee.

The bill will prohibit publicly expressing hatred towards religious sanctities, religious organizations, clergy and parish, or publishing/disclosing material aiming at insulting the feelings of believers.

It also foresees punishment for ‘contamination’ of religious buildings and other sanctities, as well as damaging such buildings.

Committee head Eka Beselia said during a hearing on Tuesday that she believes the draft bill does not conflict with the principle of freedom of expression.

“We aimed at finding a balance between protecting freedom of expression and protecting religious feelings,” she said, adding that many European countries have the same kind of regulation in administrative code or in criminal law.

“The courts will have to decide in each case what to be considered an offense,” she clarified.

The human rights committee supported the initiative by MP Soso Jachvliani, but instructed him to clarify the content of the bill, as it seemed to vague.

The draft has not yet reached the hearing stage in parliament, but is going through committee discussions, but already there are opponents. Public Defender Ucha Nanuashvili on Wednesday issued a lengthy statement arguing that the bill ‘uniquely contradicts’ the principle of freedom of expression and may threaten the country’s democratic development.

In a reworked version, published after the committee hearing, the bill reads that insulting one’s religious feelings will result in a fine of 300 laris (USD 120), but 600 laris (USD 240) in case the offense is repeated. Damaging and ‘contaminating’ religious sanctities and buildings will result in a 500 lari (USD 200) fine, but 1,000 laris (USD 400) if the offense is repeated.

MPs Eka Beselia, Gedevan Popkhadze, Pati Khalvashi, Vladimer Achba and Merab Kachakhidze supported the initiative at the hearing.

Popkhadze, deputy head of the human rights committee, believes that the initiative is a step forward in regard to protection of human rights.

“This is sort of a preventive measure, and I cannot see anything but positive in terms of human rights,” he said.

He explained his opinion by saying that during the National Movement government, freedom of expression was under pressure. When that regime was removed, people ‘felt freedom’ and some people abused this freedom by insulting the religious feelings of others. Often people within the Orthodox Church did it as well, he added.

“If you are not a believer, this is your business. I am not running after you trying to convince you otherwise, so why are you insulting me?”

But the ombudsman believes that ‘insulting feelings’ cannot be used as a basis for limiting fundamental rights.

“The Constitutional Court of Georgia stated that disapproval of views, values ​​and ideas cannot serve as grounds for restricting freedom of expression. The state is obliged to protect objectively identifiable interests, but not subjective feelings,” the ombudsman explained.

He warned that instead of encouraging pluralism and respect for different views in society, the proposed bill may escalate disagreement between religious groups and adherents of different beliefs. The Public Defender called on parliament to reject the bill.