TBILISI, DFWatch–In the center of Batumi stands the large Ortajame Mosque. It was built in the 1860s, and Muslims gather here for Friday prayers. The problem is, there isn’t enough room for everybody inside, so many people are having to conduct their prayers outside.
The Muslim community in Batumi and the wider Adjara region have therefore been asking for permission to build another mosque in Batumi, using their own resources.
This is not a new request. The problem has lasted for years. But lately, the issue surrounding the construction of a new mosque, and all the procedures it involves, has led to confrontation and disputes, for several different reasons.
The Muslim community has been waiting for permission from the government to build. They plan to construct the mosque through donations and only need approval of the location in order to start.
Another problem popped up after the previous government started negotiations with Turkey to restore the Aziz Mosque in Georgia, in return for Turkey maintaining Georgian monuments on its side of the border.
Sultan Aziz in the 1860s decided to construct a new mosque in Batumi, close to the Black Sea shore, and name it after the historic Turkish leader Aziz. It was built in 1868 in the center of Batumi and close to the coast, but the mosque was destroyed in the early 20th century.
Beka Mindiashvili, an analyst of minority issues, says that the deal between Turkey and Georgia about the Aziz Mosque and Georgian monuments in Turkey has never been disclosed to the public, so no-one knows exactly what the two countries have agreed to.
He says that in 2005, Turkey asked to restore several mosques in Batumi and one in Akhaltsikhe. Georgia on its part asked to start the reconstruction of a Georgian monument of historical importance in Tao Karjeti. Turkey has unilaterally begun reconstruction at this site.
However, the Batumi mosque issue is not solved yet. Mindiashvili says that it is the clear position of the Orthodox Church that they won’t allow the construction of a mosque in the center of Batumi, which is a big barrier.
“They demonstrated, involving political groups in the protest, giving liturgical protest. This is a new thing in the Orthodox Church.”
Guram Aslan Abashidze is Mufti of Khulo, a district in the Adjara region 40 000 inhabitants, 97 percent of whom are Muslims. The district according to him has 44 mosques. In about 20 villages, there are no Christians at all. In Khulo, there are six boarding schools. Abashidze believes that people in Khulo are strong believers.
No money is set aside in the state budget for to the Muslim community in Georgia, while the government in 2013 allocated about USD 15 million for the Georgian Orthodox Church, the Patriarchy. There is an agreement between the church and the government, which says that the government has no obligation to finance the church, but the government keeps increasing its financing for the Georgian Church every year. In 2012 it was about USD 12 million.
Suliko Abashidze says that the Muslims donate money to their mosques. People also bring products, and in addition, each family pays an annual fee for personnel. The size of the fee depends on how big the family is. One family pays nearly 15 lari (USD 9) annually. In addition, there are donation boxes in the mosques, where people can donate as much as they want.
“It is their desire to pay, but we have strong believers and they usually pay more,” he says.
The mosques sometimes receive donations from tourists, but this does not happen very often.
“I myself sold my car Niva for 4 500 lari and gave the money to constructing a new mosque,” he continued. “Many people want to build a new mosque in Batumi and each of them will donate.”
The mufti remembers that in the 1980s, the population in Adjarian was resettled to different regions of Georgia due to a shortage of land.
“But there was also another reason, hidden from society: these people were protecting Islam and since this was at the border between Turkey and Georgia, their goal was to harm the belief of those people,” he says, continuing that another resettlement took place in 1989, but it was more serious when people were sent to Adigeni, Aspindza, Akhalkalaki, Kakheti and Guria, and in the last nine-ten years Adjarians were sent to Tsalka.
Suliko Makharadze, a Muslim from Khulo who supports constructing a new mosque in Batumi, says that there are some of the locals who chose to become Christians, but their religion doesn’t prohibit or force anything to people.
“Christian won’t tell you to come to their side, neither will Muslim,” he says, adding that he has a daughter-in-law who is Christian and from Tbilisi. “I will never tell her to pray like a Muslim. She can pray how she wants.”
Suliko explains that there are many mixed Christian-Muslim families, and this is not prohibited by their religion.
Suliko Makharadze has five children, nine grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. He lives in Khulo and comes to the local mosque to pray.
“Almost everyone here are Muslims,” he says. “Khoja calls people for prayer from the minaret and I go for prayer, being all ready, washed with the necessary procedures.”
The issue of Batumi’s mosque is not new. During the previous government, Muslims wrote a letter to Jemal Paksadze, Mufti of All Georgia, saying that a location was needed to construct a new mosque, but then another problem appeared: The government started negotiations with Turkey about the Aziz Mosque in return for maintaining Georgian monuments in Turkey. This caused concern among people in Georgia.
Thousands of prayers rallied against construction of Aziz mosque ‘symbol of Georgia’s difficult past’ in Batumi. Series of rallies were organized by the Christians.
After, a government changed in the country and the new Prime Minister said that he wants to participate in construction of the new mosque, but still no official responses from the government about construction.
Guram Aslan Abashidze thinks that expanding the mosque in Batumi is impossible as it lies between two streets. On one side, there are two shops and one diner, one office and a tea house, which are all renting. There are also two religious shops selling the Quran and prayer beads, among other things.
“Then there is another problem. When Muslims from mountainous villages, 100-120 km away from Batumi, go there to pray, they will of course bring some products there to sell. So many worshipers on Friday will go to Batumi. But by the time they visit the market to drop off their products, it will already be 12:00-12:30. Then we stand in the toilet line for 10-15 minutes, and then we wait to have our preliminary washing ritual, while the prayer already begins, and those people will have to pray in the yard, because there won’t be any place for them to pray inside.”
Nodar Kakhadze, Assistant to the Imam at Batumi Mosque, recalls that the mosque has never stopped functioning, even in the Soviet era, when even churches were closed.
“I have been coming here to the Batumi mosque since the 1980s. I remember that there was harassment against the mosque, but it was still full of people,” he says, adding that he is from Khulo and studied the Quran at a time when this was prohibited under Communism. He said when his parents secretly went to the mosque to pray, he was studying at home.
He also remembers that during Saakashvili’s government, talks started to build a mosque at the site of the Aziz Mosque.
Kakhadze says that Aziz Mosque was built in the 1860s, but destroyed in the 1940s, allegedly in a fire. Few photos of it still exist, but he says he has seen a picture of Aziz somewhere.
“I want to underline that we do not demand to restore Aziz. It is not necessary. Prayers do not fit in one mosque, and the city needs a new one, and it is not necessary to build it where Aziz was.”
Kakhadze recalls the protests in August, when Muslims gathered in Batumi outside to pray at the location where they wanted to build the new mosque. They didn’t go in the direction of the sea, where Aziz was in the past, in order to indicate that they do not demand the restoration of the old mosque. They moved to Bagrationi street in Batumi, far from the Aziz location, where there is a cross now and they respect it.
In the end of August, 2013, Muslims symbolically fenced in the location of the new mosque on Bagrationi Street and prayed. They said then that the new mosque will be built with Georgian ornaments.
“We don’t want a mosque to be built with money from another country, but with our money, Georgian Muslims,” Kakhadze continued.
They have already started gathering money for construction, and have donation boxes and other measures to collect the money. He said more than ten thousand lari must be gathered already.
Muslims want about 5 000 square meters to be allocated, and when the official permission is received they will start working on the construction project.
September 11, they applied to the city council to allocate a location for th econstruction, but have received no response yet.
Archil Khabadze, head of Adjara’s Autonomous government, says that many Muslims work at their office and for as long as Muslims and Orthodox Christians have lived together they have called for tolerance and coexistence.
“We have lived together for so many decades and nothing ever happened between us, which is an example for world,” he says.
Khabadze thinks that the recent religious conflicts are related to each other and are aimed at ‘destabilization.’
He says that Aziz Mosque cannot be built in Adjara on the spot where it used to be, because there is different infrastructure, but the Adjara government took into account the concerns about constructing a new mosque. They proposed to expand the Orta Jame in Batumi.
“We planned to free the buildings next to this mosque, where people are living. These people agreed,” he explained, continuing that finding a new place and constructing a new mosque would have been cheaper than expanding the existing one.
“There was a readiness to expand the mosque. 90 percent of Muslims agreed. We planned to take the whole block. If at least one out of 48 had been against it, we would have been obliged to change the plan and deny the expansion and think of constructing the new mosque in a new place.”
As Khabadze can recall, 20 percent of Muslim families didn’t like the idea of expansion. But the confrontation began when people began to suspect that constructing the new mosque was dictated from Turkey, followed by a visit to Georgia by the Turkish foreign minister, who said that it would be good to construct a new mosque.
In the end of March, 2013, the foreign ministers of Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan met, after which Turkey’s minister said it would be good to construct a new mosque for Muslims living in Adjara and promised that they would take care of Georgian heritage in Turkey.
Guguli, who is a vendor of candles at the church in the center of Batumi, thinks that one mosque is enough for Batumi, but she is not against the construction of a new one.
“No-one will ask me. I’m not either on that side or on this side. I’m neutral. Everyone must have their own praying place. Everyone must serve to their gods,” she told us. The church where she is working was built in 1997, and she has been working there since the day it was opened.
Tariel Nakaidze, Chairman of Georgia’s Muslim Union, says that the Mosque in Batumi has little space; however several constructions surrounding it were made into places for prayer and now the site can accomodate about 5 000 people, but still the garden is full of worshipers on Fridays. He says he had to pray in the street as well, so he also thinks that it is necessary to construct the new mosque in Batumi.
So far, there is no official document denying permission to construct it. If there comes an officvial rejection from the government, it will have to state a reason. Nakaidze thinks this is not only a religious issue, but also a democracy issue.
Two weeks ago, Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili met with the Muslim community to discuss recent religious conflicts and the construction of a new mosque in Batumi. After the meeting, Archil Khabadze, head of the Autonomous Government of Adjara, said that if there is not enough money for the construction, the PM will personally finance it. Meanwhile, the Muslims are awaiting a response about permission to start building.
“I want to confirm that the mosque will be built; however the option of expanding the old mosque is still being considered,” Khabadze said. “But the important thing is that they will have a place to pray.”