A joint statement of NGOs regarding the religious confrontation in the village of Samtatskaro, Dedoplistskaro District

We would like to respond to the cases of religious confrontation that have taken place over the last two weeks in the village of Samtatskaro, Dedoplistskaro District, during which the religious freedom of the local Muslim population, which is guaranteed by the Constitution, was grossly violated. It should be noted that the NGOs that have signed this statement were directly observing the processes that developed in Samtatskaro on May 31, and the facts and assessments presented in the present statement are based on the results of our monitoring.

On May 31, the local Muslims living in the village of Samtatskaro were again prevented from performing the traditional Friday prayer (jumuʿah) together, which was preceded by a confrontation at the entrance to the village during which the local Christian population blocked the road and prevented representatives of the Administration of Muslims, the Mufti of Qvemo Kartli, and persons accompanying him, who were on their way to the village to attend the prayer, from entering the village. The incident was accompanied by a verbal assault on the representatives of the Administration of Muslims and a physical assault on the Mufti of Qvemo Kartli, Jemal Adadze.  The first confrontation between the local Christians and Muslims had taken place on May 24 when the Muslim community that had gathered to perform a prayer were assaulted verbally, the objects needed for the ritual were taken out of the building at will, and the Muslims were forcibly made to leave the house of worship. The aforementioned fact was witnessed by officers of the local police who, according to the Mufti of Qvemo Kartli, took no measures to prevent the interruption.

The initial confrontation was preceded by the Muslims’ attempt to perform a joint prayer in the house purchased by the Administration of Muslims. According to the local Christian population, they are not against the religious expression of Muslims if they perform the prayer in their own homes, though they won’t allow them to gather in a house of worship, which they explain by their objection to the construction of a mosque. It should be noted that the local Muslim community wants the functioning of a house of worship, not a mosque, in the village, which would allow them to lead a full religious life. However, it should be emphasized that if a reasonable balance between the interests is observed, the issue of building a mosque should also be considered as a legitimate demand on the part of the religious minority. It should be mentioned that the local Muslims of Samtatskaro still perform the traditional joint prayer in the house of one of the Muslims.

When the aforementioned confrontation is concerned, it is important to understand the role of the local government and the law enforcement bodies. On May 31, the police that was mobilized at the entrance to Samtatskaro at the time of the confrontation not only failed to ensure the movement of the Muslims and the protection of religious freedom, it also failed to make any attempts to unblock the road and prevent the illegal acts committed by the Christian population of the village. The incident was also witnessed by the Administrator of the Dedoplistskaro District, the Head of the Village Council, and the Trustee of the Village who failed to contribute positively to the neutralization of the confrontation and to take relevant measures. Moreover, the analysis of the actions of the representatives of the local government and the police shows that they perceived themselves as a party to the conflict and, with their actions, went beyond the limits of the competences established by law and failed to observe the principle of religious neutrality. Specifically, the local government and the police stated directly that they obeyed the opinion of the majority of the villagers who do not want the construction of a mosque in the village. Moreover, the local government and the police called on the representatives of the Administration of Muslims to leave the village territory and even called them provocateurs. Representatives of the local government and the police assessed the actions of the aggressive group only as freedom of expression and refused to see signs of an alleged offence in their actions.

The analysis of the recent developments shows that in a short interval a number of hotbeds of religious conflict have emerged at the local levels and the number of cases of oppression of a religious minority,  especially the Adjarian Muslims (the village of Nigvziani, Tsinskaro, the incident of Tsikhisdziri), on the part of the dominant religious group has increased. In our assessment, the spread of religious conflicts is mainly caused by the state’s inadequate participation in the process of regulation of prior conflicts when the state made an ineffective legal response to violent behavior caused by religious intolerance and, in fact, entrusted the regulation of the conflicts to clergymen. With such non-intervention, the state failed to ensure fair regulation of the conflict between the parties that were already under unequal conditions. At the same time, due to taking the process of conflict regulation out of the secular area, the state failed to create a neutral public space and to pursue a policy based on the rule of law and respect for human rights during this process.

At the same time, we can consider the state’s general policy in this direction (which is sometimes expressed in inaction, inadequate action, or putting religious organizations in unequal conditions) as another contributing factor to religious conflicts. It is obvious that the public spaces are affected by indoctrination, which hinders the establishment of democratic and tolerance based values in the civil society.

Accordingly, in relation to the conflict in Samtatskaro, we consider it very important that the state respond in a relevant manner, which should imply taking all possible measures to resolve the conflict peacefully and justly and to allow full exercise of religious freedom by the Muslim population. In this respect, it is especially important that:

-         the state make a legal response to the actions of those persons whose behavior goes beyond the area protected by law and limits the religious freedom of other people. In the behavior of some persons, obvious signs of criminal action can be observed, which makes it necessary to conduct an effective investigation and impose legal responsibility on the corresponding persons. Among the measures to be taken, it is essential that the state respond to the behavior of the local government and the police which failed to observe the requirement of religious neutrality and did nothing to ensure that the minority could exercise its religious freedom;

-           representatives of the local government perceive their role correctly and subject their behavior/local policies to the limits established by law and to the principle of the rule of law;

-           the state openly support the full exercise of religious practice by religious minorities and take effective measures to ensure the religious expression of the Muslim population;

-           the state contribute to reaching of an agreement between the leaders of the opposing religious groups which will be based on the principles of peace and religious freedom;

-           the state strengthen tolerance based policies in religiously mixed settlements, particularly in the  system of general education.

We hope that by next Friday the state will take adequate measures to ensure that the local Muslim population can perform a joint prayer in a quiet and safe environment. At the same time, we hope that the authorities will develop a unified policy to regulate the existing problems in the hotbeds of religious conflict and to contribute to the creation of an environment based on peace and tolerance at the local levels.

The NGOs will continue to observe the processes developing in Samtatskaro and present their assessments to the public.

Georgian Democracy Initiative (GDI)

Human Rights Education and Monitoring Center (EMC)

Georgian Young Lawyers Association (GYLA)

Article 42 of the Constitution of Georgia