Throughout the former Soviet Union, opposition has emerged against “nontraditional” religions. But Georgia is the only country in Eurasia where officially-condoned, organized mob violence against adherents of nontraditional faiths has developed as a continuing problem — and the Jehovah’s Witnesses have been the primary target of that campaign, reports Michael Ochs, staff advisor at the Helsinki Commission at the US Congress.
Writing in the September issue of Religion, State & Society, Ochs notes that such repression had already appeared during the communist period: a small congregation had been formed in 1969.
In late 2001, the number of members had reached around 15,000. Mob violence begun around 1998, when a defrocked Orthodox priest, Basil Mkalavishvili launched assaults on them. At the same time, parliamentarians undertook to raise the issue of religious purity. Whatever the fate of Mkalavishvili, observes Ochs, “he has already established an ominous legacy” and others are following in his footsteps.
Not everybody in Georgia approves of persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The issue seems to be sometimes used in the context of competition between different political groups. Of special concern is the fact that authorities and law-enforcement agencies not infrequently seem to sympathize with the attackers. While there are many other pressing issues in Georgia, the question of Jehovah’s Witnesses should not be seen as a minor one: the way Georgia addresses the problem will demonstrate if there are prospects for creating a rule-of-law.
Once again, as it happened already in other contexts in the past, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and treatment of them can be seen as indicators of wider developments in a society and its ability to accommodate pluralism — religious and otherwise.
(Religion, State & Society, Keston Institute, 38 St Aldates, Oxford, OX1 1BN, UK)
— By Jean-Francois Mayer