Giorgi Tughushi: “No firm consensus reached unfortunately on the principles of tolerance yet”
Ombudsman of Georgia Giorgi Tughushi attended the presentation of new website of Human Rights Center - www.religiebi.info - in the hotel Tbilisi Marriot on February 29th. He also participated in the discussion on the new amendments adopted in the Civil Code concerning the registration of religious organizations. Georgian Ombudsman briefly reviewed the problems of religious minorities and assessed the recent amendments as a progressive step. Humanrights.ge presents the full speech of Georgian Ombudsman.
“I would like to express my positive attitude towards the launching of this news website. I think more activism of NGOs must be welcomed and supported. Many organizations including Human Rights Center always paid attention to religions entities and freedom of religion. However, creation of separate web-resources is a significant step of progress. Unfortunately, themes of problems of minorities are not often covered by different media means. However, information on the ethnical minorities can be more available than religious. Any website including the new one will need time to fill in and provide the information that the viewers need. Though http://www.religiebi.info/ is only several years old, it already has a lot of information. I am sure religiebi.info will have close partnership with our site – http://www.tolerantoba.ge/ which covers the issues of ethnical minorities. We can exchange information and refer to one another’s links in our website.
As for the amendments made to the Civil Code, the registration of religious entities is universally practiced and at one glance, an easy procedure. However, the issue of their registration became a topic of long and heated discussion. Last year’s events once again demonstrated the sensitivity of the issue. The fact that there is no unified approach towards the registration and status of religious entities contributed to more complication of the issue. There are just guiding principles of broad nature adopted by the Consultation Council of Experts in the Issues of Freedom of Religion and Confession of OSCE in 2004 through close partnership with the Venice Commission. This document establishes necessary broad standards for registration but it does not constitute concrete directions. As for Georgia, it should be noted that religious entities did not have any possibility of registration till 2005. In 2005, the amendments were made in article 1506 of Civil Code which granted the religious entities with right to register as a fund or a union. Later, the rule of registration was simplified and instead of fund or union, the terms non-commercial and non-profit legal entity appeared in the law. However, many religious entities – Catholic, Armenian Apostolic, Lutheran, Baptist Churches, Judaic and Muslim Communities refuse to apply the status of legal entities due to different reasons. Thus, for years this issue has not been solved.
The parliamentary reports of Ombudsman constantly underlined the necessity of solving these problems. It should be noted that if only several religious entities received the status of legal entity of public law and others would have difficulty to satisfy some criteria to apply this status; this would give rise to disagreement. On the other hand, registration as a legal entity of public law included threat of control from the side of the state which is envisaged by the Law on Legal Entity of Public Law. It should be noted that in the Council of Religions of Ombudsman, numerous discussions were held with the participation of experts in 2010-2011. The representatives of Patriarchate were invited to the Council sessions refused to participate in this kind of format of discussion. Ultimately, those religious entities who were the members of Council of Religions adopted unified position and sent joint address to the government of Georgian and diplomatic community.
The address stated that registration and obtaining of desirable status should have been equally available for all religious entities. This must not have caused the creation of hierarchy among the religious entities and granting different rights and privileges. In case of change of regime of registration, the state should not have had a possibility to control the religious entities. In July 5th of 2011 the Parliament adopted amendments in the Civil Code which granted religious entities an opportunity to register a legal entity of public law. Besides, this provision does not restrict the opportunity to register as legal entities of private law or not register at all and exist as non-registered union. According to the amendments, the National Agency of Public Registry can register the religious entities of historic link with Georgia and those denominations which are considered to be a religion according to the legislation of member countries of Council of Europe as a legal entity of public law. These two criteria cover a rather broad spectrum of confessions existing in Georgia. However, even in case the religious entity does not satisfy one of these criteria, substantially, this will not place it in unequal legal environment since these religious entities can also register as legal entities of private law.
It should be noted that the Georgian Law on Public Entities does not apply to the religious entities registered as legal entities of public law and they stay under the regulations of legal framework of legal entities of private law. Thus, the amendment adopted in the Civil Code reflects and responds to the positions and recommendations of the Council of Religions existing at Office of Ombudsman.
7 religious entities have received the status of legal entity of public law so far. Several are preparing necessary documentation as I know.
The Parliament decision was followed by unhealthy reactions from numerous groups of society. The xenophobic reactions, particularly towards Armenians were observed. This showed that unfortunately, there is no firm consensus on the principles of tolerance and equality among the religious majority, political circles of opposition, NGOs, media and in general in the society.
Also, the decision of synod of Patriarchate which played positive role to stop the escalation of intolerance should be welcomed and underlined. The Holy Synod of Georgian Orthodox Church called on the congregation to stay peaceful and stated that supports the equality before law of any individual and religious entity and freedom of religion.
Ultimately, the amendment regarding the rule of registration of religious entities was a significant progress in the road of achievement of equality. The amendments were responded with specific statements of EU delegation in Georgia, Parliamentary Assembly of Council of Europe and US Embassy. Pope of Rome considered this process to be a hopeful sign in the sphere of freedom of religion.
As a conclusion I would like to state that in the recent period two significant steps have been taken in the direction of freedom of religion. The Minister of Corrections and Legal Assistance of Georgia issued an order on December 30th of 2010 according to which the spiritual representatives of religious minorities were granted right to freely access the prisons. The Georgian Constitutional Court satisfied the complaint of Ombudsman against the Parliament and found the discriminative provision of Georgian Law on Military-Reserve Service unconstitutional which excluded the possibility of alternative non-military labor service on the grounds of religious beliefs. I am glad that the Council of Religions of Office of Ombudsman played a significant role in this process by the recommendations of which and through our joint work the above-mentioned progress was reached.
Certainly, all the above-mentioned does not give us right to state that all problems of religious minorities are solved in terms of protection of freedom of religion and development of tolerant environment. Significant challenges still remain which require adequate reaction from the side of civil society. I think each one of us should continue to work jointly to solve the issues which still remain in agenda.
Very soon the 2011 Parliamentary report of Ombudsman will be made public rather big part of which refer to the rights of minorities. Certainly, the chapter on religious minorities will be a separate chapter in which we will not only talk about positive, progressive steps but the problems observed in 2011: also we will pay attention to legislative or other types of issues which are still on agenda.
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