(Washington) - Fifteen Members of Congress sent a letter to Republic of Georgia President Eduard Shevardnadze today urging him to ensure an end to the increasing violence against minority religious groups in the former Soviet Republic. Over the past two years, violent mobs have attacked members of various non-Orthodox religious communities while police allegedly refuse to intervene or take an active role in the attacks.
The letter, spearheaded by Members of the United States Helsinki Commission, urges Shevardnadze to “take concrete steps to provide for the security of all Georgians without distinction as to religion.”
“President Shevardnadze and Georgian authorities appear to have turned a blind eye to the ongoing violence against certain church groups,” said Commission Chairman Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-CO). “Hopefully, this letter will send a clear message that the United States is greatly alarmed by these attacks and expects Georgian authorities to do everything possible to protect individuals, regardless of their religious faith.”
“The inability or unwillingness of Georgian authorities to protect minority religious groups is very disturbing,” said Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ). “President Shevardnadze must take concrete steps to ensure that all people can practice their faith without fear of attacks or violence.”
Helsinki Commission Members signing the letter were Chairman Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-CO), Co-Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ), Ranking Member Senator Christopher J. Dodd (D-CT), Ranking Member Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-MD), Senator Gordon H. Smith (R-OR), Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY), Rep. Joseph R. Pitts (R-PA), Rep. Zach Wamp (R-TN), Rep. Robert B. Aderholt (R-AL), Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD), Rep. Louise McIntosh Slaughter (D-NY) and Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL).
Other Members of Congress signing the letter were Senator Joseph I. Lieberman (D-CT), Rep. J.C. Watts (R-OK) and Rep. Anthony D. Weiner (D-NY).
Organized mobs have brutally attacked minority religious groups with increasing frequency since 1999. The mobs have targeted Jehovah’s Witnesses approximately 80 times. Many of the attacks were reportedly led by defrocked Georgian Orthodox priest Vasili Mkalavishvili.
Victims have filed more than 700 criminal complaints, but authorities have not responded, leaving the perpetrators free to repeat their attacks. Mkalavishvili’s followers have allegedly targeted other religious groups, including a Pentecostal church, an Evangelical Church, and a warehouse owned by the Baptist Union.
Individuals have reportedly been dragged by their hair into a group, then pummeled with punches, kicks and clubs. Buses of Jehovah’s Witnesses have been stopped by police, and attacked by Mkalavishvili’s vigilantes. A mob attacked a Pentecostal Church during choir practice, injuring 12 people during the raid. Local television stations are often notified in advance of the attacks, allowing the nightly news to broadcast the violence.
A criminal trial against Mkalavishvili began January 25th of this year, but the charges in the case are minor. Authorities have postponed the case five times, mainly due to Mkalavishvili’s mob being allowed to enter the courtroom and assail victims, lawyers and international observers. Only ten police are permitted to guard victims and their lawyers during Mkalavishvili’s current trial. But authorities used more than 200 police and a SWAT team to protect Ministry of Interior officials when Mkalavishvili was brought to trial under different charges.
“Accordingly, we call upon you, Mr. President, to put an end to these attacks, and to honor Georgia’s OSCE commitments to promote and protect religious freedom,” the Members urged Shevardnadze. “We ask you to ensure concrete steps are taken to punish the perpetrators through vigorous prosecution, thereby demonstrating that such violence will not be tolerated.”
The text of the letter to President Shevardnadze is available on the Helsinki Commission’s website, http://www.csce.gov. A CSCE Digest article, “Georgian Government Complicity in Mob Violence Against Minority Religious Groups,” details the current religious freedom climate in the Republic of Georgia.
The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords. The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense and Commerce.