The Statement by the Organisations Forming the Platform No to Phobia On the Discriminatory Assessments Related to the Batumi Mosque

The organisations making up the platform No to Phobia respond to discriminatory public statements made with regard to the construction of a Mosque in Batumi, which are in breach of fundamental human rights.

On 16 September, in an interview aired by the Ajara Public Broadcaster, businessperson and founder of the civic movement Lelo, Mamuka Khazaradze discussed the construction of the Batumi mosque in the context of the state of Georgian churches in Turkey.

Mamuka Khazaradze stated: “Do you know that Georgia is distinguished in the world due to its tolerance and at no point any religion has faced restrictions here historically? This is our achievement and this is what we should never lose. I am not aware of the details regarding the mosque construction. I am not informed about the details of the court dispute. I will get myself familiar with these, by all means, to update myself. However, our historical churches that are on the territory of Turkey, have you seen their state?”

The above populist statement negates the fundamental right to freedom of religion of Georgian Muslims and goes counter to the principles of liberal democracy and equality. It is impermissible to discuss the construction of a mosque in Georgia and Georgian citizens’ right to the freedom of religion, in connection to other states, in the context of “reciprocity”.

Similarly, on 17 September, the vice-speaker of the parliament and leader of the parliamentary majority, Gia Volski, referred to the need for the construction of the Batumi mosque as an “artificial problem” in an interview with a journalist and stated that this should be decided based on public consensus.

According to Gia Volski: “It is wrong to ask why we do not give them [the permission]. The Georgian Muslim community has made a special contribution to our country in all respects. Another issue is the need for public consensus. Since there are no questions regarding the rights of the Georgian Muslim community when it comes to mosques, accordingly, there are individuals that form a certain part of the society who believe that the problem itself is artificial and it can lead to tensions. There are supporters of this idea in the Muslim community and for them public order is important. Our opponents will always try to bring this issue to the forefront, agitate and aggravate it.”

It has been years since Muslims who are citizens of Georgia have been unable to construct and pray in the new mosque in Batumi and, accordingly, to exercise their right to freedom of religion.

After multiple and futile promises from the authorities, the Initiative Group of the Batumi Mosque Construction collected signatures of more than 12,000 citizens in 2016 and requested the allocation of a plot of land for the mosque from the Government of Ajara, Batumi City Hall, and the Government of Ajara.  However, neither local nor central authorities took any positive steps in this regard and failed to take concrete decisions. Later, the New Batumi Construction Mosque purchased a plot of land with its own funds and applied for the permission for the construction of the mosque to the City Hall of the Batumi Municipality in 2017. The local self-government refused to give permission to the Muslim community. In June 2017, the Muslim Initiative Group appealed the decision before the Batumi City Court. The gist of the claim was to announce as null and void the decision on refusing the permission for the first stage of the construction on the plot of land purchased by the Muslim community; to instruct the City Hall to determine the terms of the use of the plot of land for construction; and, to find discrimination on account of religion and eliminate its effects. Against the background where there are numerous religious buildings in the city of Batumi, including near residential blocks, and where plots of land for construction was given in some cases to the Orthodox Church by the same local municipality, denying the Muslim Community to construct the mosque on the plot of land purchased with its own funds indicates possible discrimination on account of religion by the state.

The legality of the decision of the Batumi Mayor was examined by the Public Defender in 2017. The Public Defender found that the decision had been adopted without taking into consideration the relevant circumstances of the case. The Public Defender recommended to the Batumi City Hall to announce the decisions adopted on refusing the permission as null and void and requested for the adoption of a new reasoned decision that would take the relevant circumstances into consideration.

The problem of the place of worship of the Batumi Muslims and the state’s policy towards it is criticised in the reports of local and international organisations.

The court dispute related to the permission for the construction of the mosque has been delayed for more than two years. The last court hearing was held on 12 September 2019. The Batumi City Court will announce its decision on 26 September.

The public statements of the public authorities and the position taken by the Mayor of Batumi show that the state does not have the political desire to resolve the Batumi mosque construction issue in a fair manner and in favour of human rights.

It should be pointed out that the populist statements against the principle of equality, made by the politicians towards the representatives of minority religious groups, and their discriminatory rhetoric are particularly striking in pre-election periods.

Stemming from the abovementioned, we call upon the representatives of the state authorities and public figures to refrain from making xenophobic and discriminatory statements and be guided by the constitutional right to freedom of religion and the principles of equality and the rule of law.

 Georgian Democracy Initiative (GDI)

Tolerance and Diversity Institute (TDI)

Media Development Foundation (MDF)

Georgia’s Reforms Associates (GRASS)

Human Rights Centre (HRC)

Institute for Democracy and Safe Development (IDSD)