ZOiS Spotlight 44/2020

Religious diversity as a challenge on Georgia’s path to Europe?

by Tsypylma Darieva 02/12/2020
Sign of a shop for religious paraphernalia in Tbilisi, Georgia. © imago images / Steffen Schellhorn

Over the last two decades, Georgia has made important strides towards a new level of democratic rule by developing programmes, for instance, to integrate ethnic minorities and harmonising its legislation with international commitments. Within the country’s Europeanisation process, Georgia ratified the European Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities in 2005 and adopted the National Concept and Action Plan for Tolerance and Civil Integration in 2009. Signing up to the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, which is necessary to protect minority rights, would be a next step in Georgia’s alignment with European obligations.

As Georgia’s main national narrative is based on the unity of Orthodoxy, the Georgian language, and the homeland, ethnic and religious minorities pose a variety of challenges to existing patterns of identity. As two broad categories, ethnic and religious minorities can overlap, although this is not always the case. Surveys have revealed that minorities’ levels of engagement in public life in Georgia are relatively low. This is particularly evident with regard to minorities’ participation in political life and representation in elected bodies and governmental agencies.

Ethnic and religious minorities make up approximately one-sixth of the country’s population. The largest minority community comprises Azeris in the Kvemo Kartli and Kakheti regions, followed by Armenians, who represent most of the population in Samtskhe-Javakheti. Both groups differ from the national majority on linguistic and religious grounds. Whereas Azeris in Kvemo Kartli are Turkic-speaking Shia Muslim Georgians, ethnic Armenians belong primarily to the Armenian Apostolic Church. There are also smaller communities of Abkhaz, Russians, Assyrians, Greeks, Jews, and others.

In many cases, the political marginalisation of ethnic minorities is reinforced by their poor knowledge of the Georgian language. However, it would be inaccurate to say that ethnic minorities do not view Georgia as their homeland. The 2019 Caucasus Barometer survey showed that Georgians have become more tolerant of inter-ethnic marriages. Ethnic minorities, meanwhile, tend to highlight the economic issues they face and are significantly less likely than religious minorities to report discrimination.

Religious minorities: not ‘truly Georgian’?

Georgia has made visible efforts to strengthen its legal framework for promoting religious diversity. The country’s constitution provides for freedom of religion and equality for all, regardless of religion. About 13 per cent of Georgia’s population is Muslim (Sunni or Shia), while 3 per cent belongs to the Armenian Apostolic Church. About another 3 per cent consists of Roman Catholics, Yezidis, Greek Orthodox Christians, Jews, and a growing number of new religious groups, such as Baptists, Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, and the Baha’i faith.

However, accommodating religious minorities is an uneasy and uneven process. A range of power structures shapes this process, which is rooted in the privileged status of the Georgian Orthodox Church. Because of the concordat that governs relations between the Orthodox Church and the Georgian state, and the church’s monopolising views, many minority religious groups complain that they are not treated equally.

In response to growing criticism from international and human rights organisations, in 2011 Georgia amended its Civil Code. This amendment gave the largest religious minorities with close historic ties to Georgia—Muslims, Jews, Roman Catholics, and the Armenian Church—the right to register as legal entities of public law. However, the registration does not provide any status privileges. The groups are still treated as private organisations and, unlike the Orthodox Church, are not exempt from property taxes.

The presence of religious inequality in Georgia has resulted in public debates on the disadvantaged position of religious minorities, which in some cases face difficulties in the public expression of their religious belonging. In a survey carried out in August 2018 by the Caucasus Research Resource Center Georgia, asked whether religious diversity was positive or negative for their country, 47 per cent of Georgians viewed such diversity as a threat to culture and traditions, while 31 per cent thought diversity made life more interesting.

The role of religious places of worship

Ethnographic observations and surveys of minority religious groups as part of a ZOiS project on religious pluralisation in Georgia show that negotiation and contestation of religious sites and places of worship dominate self-perceptions among a significant number of religious minorities. In various Georgian cities, Muslim, Armenian Apostolic, and Catholic communities experience administrative barriers in obtaining construction permits to build new prayer houses or restore existing ones. For instance, despite multiple requests, the City Hall of the religiously mixed city of Batumi has refused to issue a building permit for a new mosque, and the dispute over the construction site remains unresolved. An attempt by Roman Catholic Georgians to build a new church in the centre of the city of Rustavi proved impossible.

Similar cases of marginalisation include disagreements among Armenian Apostolic and Roman Catholic communities over their claims to historical and religious sites that were confiscated during the Soviet period. Generally, the Orthodox Church plays a decisive role in identifying the historical owners of disputed religious places. For instance, several former catholic temples are still owned by the GOC. Although the Georgian government takes seriously its legal frameworks for promoting tolerance of diversity, uncertainty exists at the local level. Within these frameworks, administrations that are openly loyal to the Orthodox Church often sidestep issues of religious regulation.

Contradictory arrangements like the freedom of religion and equality, on the one hand, and the privileged status of the Orthodox Church, on the other, may further marginalise religious minorities and stoke tensions in Georgian society. Georgia’s ruling elites face challenges to integrate minorities by developing a civic model of political integration and a more inclusive concept of national identity based on the possibility of being simultaneously Georgian and non-Orthodox. If successful, such a transformation can contribute to structural change in line with the country’s Europeanisation process.

Tsypylma Darieva is a social anthropologist and senior researcher at ZOiS where she coordinates the research cluster “Migration and Diversity”.