Georgia adopts a new law on the status of religious organizations
On July 5, 2011 the Georgian parliament amended the Civil Code in an expedited way, within 5 working days, allowing religious organizations in Georgia to be registered as legal entities of public law. Some experts consider that the Georgian Parliament approved the amendment through violations of the bylaws. They also deem that amendment allows large interpretation of the norm, thus it requests better formulation.
Monday, 26 September 2011
Before this amendment, religious groups except the Georgian Orthodox Church (GOC) could register only as a noncommercial legal entity of private law (such as NGO, union or a foundation). Most of the religious groups expressed dissatisfaction and for several years they had been refusing to register through the existing method. Some experts positively evaluate the amendment, while others criticize and complain that it is a very unqualified one.
“The draft law was adopted within 5 working days through three hearing. Similar pace excludes the possibility of participating the religion communities and especially the involvement of religion minorities in this process. In addition to that, the information on committee sessions about the first and third hearing was not published on parliament’s web-site, which is a blatant violation of the bylaws”, - said the lawyer of Georgian Young Lawyers Association (GYLA) Tatuli Todua to the Human Rights House Tbilisi.
GYLA also considers that the amendment contains some vague norms, thus it needs future improvement. “According to the amendment, the National Agency of Public Registry is authorized to register religious unions as a legal entity of public law if they have “close historical ties with Georgia or are defined as a religion by laws in Council of Europe member states”. It’s unclear what kind of evidence the National Agency of Public Registry needs in order to prove the close historical ties. And on the other hand, it’s also unclear what they mean under “religious unions, which are defined as religions by laws in Council of Europe member states”. This norms could be interpreted in a different ways,”- noted Tatuli Todua.
The Human Rights House Tbilisi, tried to learn what kind of evidences the Public Registry needs to prove religious organizations’ historical tie with Georgia. The Public Registry explained the registration procedures only. It should be noted that, the new amendment do not give any extra privileges to the religious organizations, as “during the registration process, religion organizations should use the same procedures as it is defined for non-commercial legal entities envisaged by the Civil Code of Georgia”.
“It is clear that this issue needs deeper and more distinct legal regulation. This aim cannot be achieved within frames of the Civil Code. Desirably, the issue should have been regulated by the law on religions unions, but it did not happen unfortunately,”- reads the public statement of the head of Republican Party of Georgia Davit Usupashvili.
“The legal entity of public law is a state subject and when someone is granted with this status, it means that the state underlines its importance. As usual, such kind of amendments should be followed by adoption of a new law. For example when political parties were granted with the status of legal entity of public law, a new organic law was adopted, which covered rights and obligations. In this case, the new amendment says, that during the registration process religion communities should use the same procedural rules as for NGOs. This is a legislative nonsense,”-said the head of the Union XXI century Paata Gachechiladze.
The law was criticized by the Georgian Orthodox Church (GOC) and parishioners. After, adopting the law, Georgian Patriarchate issued an official statement, which says: “GOC has called on Georgian lawmakers to suspend the process of adopting the amendment, thus we could have the consensus among Georgian society. Unfortunately it did not happen. This law is against the church and the state interests. I think the law will cause negative consequences soon, and the state will be responsible for it”.
On July 12, 2011, the head of parliament made a definition of the law and said, that according to this amendment religious organizations are granted with legal status only. He also noted that it did not mean to reduce the rights of GOC. “It is very pity that we heard a lot of speculation and wrong interpretation of the law. We hope that in most cases, it was because they had not read the law,”- said the head of the parliament David Bakradze.
“Nowadays, GOC has special influence over the Georgian society. Both authorities and opposition are taking into the consideration the positions of the GOC; resisting the GOC’s opinion is almost deemed as a crime. Neither the state nor the church should interfere in each other’s job. Although, as some of the religious communities refused to register as an NGO, I think this amendment was the optimal solution of the problem. According to this amendment, religious organizations can register as a legal entity of public law, but they cannot enjoy the rights of the law on public legal entities. With the content they are still legal entities of private law,”- said an independent expert Beka Mindiashvili.
Catholic Church was one of those religious organizations which refused to register as a legal entity of private law and the absence of legal status caused a lot of problems for them.
“It has been several years since we exist in Georgia, but we refused to register legally, because we think the church should not be established by a person. We believe that the church is established by God and it cannot be legal entity of private law, thus you or I cannot be founders. Now, we are glad about this amendment,”- bishop of Catholic Church in Georgia Geuseppe Pazoti told the HRH Tbilisi.
The Armenian Church has been refusing to register for several years as well and now they appreciate the new amendments. For them, it was unacceptable to be registered as a legal entity of private law.
“We are glad for those amendments, but we do not know yet how it will work in practice. Now we are preparing our documentations and soon we are going to apply to the National Registry for registration,”- said a main spokesperson at Armenian Church Mari Arakelova.
It should be noted that at this moment two religious organizations are registered as a legal entity of public law by the Public Registry: “Muslim Department of Georgia” and “Assembly of Yazidi in Georgia”. The Public Registry asked “Ahli-Bate” to improve the mistakes and suspended the registration process.
Also, Geuseppe Pazoti applied to the Public Register Office for registration of “Apostolic administration of Caucasian Latin Catholics” as legal entity of public law. The same day the Register Office was applied to register “Assyrian Chaldean Catholic Community in Georgia” as legal entity of public law.
As the Parliament Chairman Davit Bakradze said at the parliamentary bureau, the new law will not cover property rights and obligations.
According to the reports of the Public Defender, the restitution of the property of religious minorities that was confiscated from them during the soviet time still remains problematic over the years.
“It is quiet strange that the GOC has re-obtained the properties confiscated during the Soviet time by state, but five catholic temples are still owned by the GOC. It is over years that the negotiation is going on and I am also involved in this process. We understand that long time has passed and maybe those temples now have orthodox parishioners, thus we suggest the GOC to firstly recognize those temples as our property and then return it to us whenever they are able. But they never agreed. They are urging that those temples are orthodox ones, but structure of the temples and construction style shows that they are catholic temples,”- said the bishop of the Catholic Church in Georgia Geuseppe Pazoti.
The Human Rights House Tbilisi addressed to the GOC to comment to this issue, but they refused to comment on this topic. “The GOC will not comment on this accusation,”-said the lawyer of the GOC Ketevan Khizanishvili.
“The state returns everything to the GOC, but not to other religion associations. We again come across the problem of triangle principle, because if state returns the property to other religious organizations in order to restore historical justice it may cause protest in Georgian society like they did in regard with the new law,”-said Beka Mindiashvili.
It should be noted that the GOC is financed from the state. In 2010 the GOC received 13.3 million USA Dollars (25.3 GEL) from the state budget.
“I think it is discriminating when the GOC is financed from my, your, Jehovah’s Witnesses’ or atheist’s salary. I think it is very unfair attitude towards others religious communities and it violates the principle of separation of state and church,”-said Beka Mindiashvili.
“I do not feel that I am discriminated in Georgia. I have been deputy Regional Governor in Samtskhe-Javakheti district, also the Member of Parliament. I am also currently employed at the public service and how do you think are Jewish people discriminated?!”- said Firuzi Kochobashvili, the head of the board of the Big Synagogue in Tbilisi.
According to the 2002 census, 93.9% of the Georgian population identified themselves as Orthodox, 9.9% - Muslims, 3.9 % - Armenian Apostolic Church, 0.8% - Roman Catholics and 0.1% - Jewish. Around 0.6% of the populations are not believers.
In addition to that, there are around 700 people of “Pentecostals”, 5000 person of Evangelical Baptist, 1000 person of Evangelical Lutheran worshipers, and 600 people of Seventh-day Adventists.
 Number 133803 letter from the National Agency of Public Registry