Georgia Adopts Law on the Status of Religious Minorities

On July 5, 2011 Georgia adopted a new legislative amendment into the country’s civil code stating that religious minority groups with “historic ties to Georgia” or those defined as religions by members of the Council of Europe can register as legal entities of public law. The initial draft of the law specifically mentioned the Roman Catholic Church, Muslim and Jewish communities, Armenian Apostolic Church and the Evangelical Baptist Church as having “close historic ties with Georgia”. However, the final draft did not specifically name these five groups.

The criminal code and Article 19 of the Georgian Constitution address freedom of religion and belief in the country. However, prior to this week Georgia was one of few post-Soviet countries that did not have a statutory law or government resolution on either religion or the legal status of religious associations. The 2002 Concordat between the Georgian government and the Georgian Orthodox Church (GOC) is the exception.

The GOC has considerable influence in Georgian society as the majority (80-84%) of the population belongs to the Orthodox Church. 10-13% identify as Muslim, 4% as Armenian Apostolic and there are less numerous religious minority groups such as Roman Catholics and Evangelical Baptists (2002 census and CB 2010). Additionally, Article 9 of the Georgian Constitution “recognizes the special importance of the Georgian Orthodox Church in Georgian history but simultaneously declares complete freedom of religious belief and confessions, as well as independence of the church from the state.”

The new law has received considerable public interest and a flurry of media attention, especially in light of the importance of religious issues in the country. Annual data from the Caucasus Barometer survey shows that certain aspects of religion are significant. Attendance at religious services is relatively low (18% of the population attends once a week or more, 17% once a month, 52% attends either only special holidays or less often and 11% never attends). However, 84% of Georgians trust religious institutions and 90% of the population considers religion to be important in daily life (2010 Caucasus Barometer).
The law has gained criticism from the GOC and several Georgian opposition parties, including the Christian Democratic Movement, the New Rights Party and Our Georgia-Free Democrats. The passing also takes place soon after a meeting between Patriarch Ilia II of the GOC and Catholicos Garegin II of the Armenian Apostolic Church in June regarding status and property issues of the respective churches in Armenia and Georgia.
Opponents view the law as undermining the GOC’s role in the country and as having a negative effect on relations between Georgia’s ethnic and religious minority groups. They also argued for more lengthy public discussion about the issue. In contrast, for the ruling party, the passing of the law can be seen as an important step in Georgia’s democratization and as fulfilling the country’s international obligations with respect to freedom of religion. One of the most important follow up questions will be what it specifically means for religious minority groups to register as legal entities of public law.

What do you think? Do you think the new law is a step in the right direction?