Georgian lawmakers are weighing a bill to punish offenders of religious feelings.
On February 2, Georgian Parliament’s Human Rights Committee supported the bill, which, if approved, will envisage punishment for ‘insult of religious feelings’.
Under to the bill, any public manifestation of hatred against religious shrines, religious organizations, clergymen or believers, as well as infliction of any damage to religious buildings, shall be imposed a fine ranging from GEL 300 to GEL 1000 – (approximately US$120 – 400).
The initiators of the bill say, the cases of direct or indirect insults of the Orthodox Church, as well as “other traditional religions,’ have become more frequent in Georgia and dozens of pages, aimed at abusing religion and the Patriarch, have been created in social networks in the recent years.
Despite the fact that supporters of the bill also name other religions among those, that need to be protected, in their opinion, the Orthodox Church is the one that needs protection most, since it is being purposefully oppressed.
‘No, I don’t really understand. If insulting LGBTs is punishable, does the Patriarch enjoy less rights? Shall the LGBTs be defended only in Georgia? Shall the country and the legislation be tailored to them? We shall ensure protection against excessive insult, which is not that much an insult to the patriarch, but rather to the parish that respects him,’ says Tamaz Mechiauri, the majority member, who supports the bill.
In the opinion of the bill supporters, some Facebook posts, excessively blaspheming the Patriarch, as well as a ‘purposeful campaign’ against the Patriarchy, launched by some public figures and NGOs and even some contemporary poets and artists’ works, are insulting “religious feelings of the believers.
For example, artist Lia Ukleba’s work – ‘The Suicider Virgin’, that was exhibited at Tbilisi-based Ilia University end of last year, caused a real stir in the society. The Patriarchy released a special statement in connection with Lia Ukleba’s ‘anti-religious’ piece of art and demanded explanations from Ilia University for organizing Lia Ukleba’s exhibition.
Lia Ukleba. ‘ Suicider Virgin’
What the representatives of the ruling team consider to be ‘protection of religious feelings’, a part of the civil society regards as unconstitutional law, restricting the freedom of speech and expression.
The criteria, based on which a religious insult shall be assessed, is unclear for many.
In circumstances where the Orthodox Church is one of the most influential institutions in Georgia, the lawyers and civil society representatives believe that the Orthodox Church, as one of the most powerful institutions capable of influencing political processes in the country, will further strengthen its position through this legislation.
The opponents have no doubt that the bill will not protect the religious minorities, but will rather shield from censure the already powerful church.
Ninia Kakabadze, a journalist, often criticized the Patriarch and the clergy in her blogs and on Facebook.
One of her recent Facebook posts, in which she criticized the Patriarch for living in overly luxurious house, has caused patchy response. The journalist says, she has been receiving threat letters on her email and on facebook page, in which she has been even threatened with physical altercation for insulting the Patriarch.
Ninia Kakabadze believes that ‘religious feelings’ bill would further encourage such people.
‘The word ‘insult’, itself, is so vague that it is hardly possible that the whole law be based only on that single word. This bill directly contradicts the Constitution and the freedom of speech, ‘she claims.
Lasha Bughadze, a writer, believes, adoption of the bill is detrimental to the country.
‘For example, in my opinion, it is an insult of religion and belief, when a clergyman blesses a car. Some ignorant and uneducated MP considers that insult to religion is, let’s say, some artist’s painting, drawn based on his/her concept. Those, who voted for this bill, are disgraceful MPs. This is a path towards obscurity and fanaticism for our country. ‘
Zaal Andronikashvili, a philosopher, says that ‘religious feelings’ is a too vague and dangerous term. ‘In other countries, an insult of religious feelings is more or less strictly defined legal category, that directly refers to desecration of shrine. In Georgia, for instance, a severed pig’s head stuck on one of the mosques’ wall, was an insult of the believers’ religious feelings. However, I couldn’t hear any reaction either from the Patriarchate or from those, who are so much concerned over religious feelings. The matter does not actually concern the feelings. This is just a pretext for something else. And that ‘something else’ is just a struggle for more power, more influence and restriction of freedom of others, ‘- says Andronikashvili.
Severed pig’s head was stuck on the constructed Muslim madrasah in Kobuleti
The opposition is not going to support this bill. It has termed it as ‘fundamentalistic’ and assessed it as restriction of the freedom of expression.
Some experts view politics in the initiation of this bill and believe, it is populist and intended for the electorate.
Having been supported by the Human Rights Committee, the bill shall be considered by the Parliament’s Legal Committee members. Afterwards, it will be brought for consideration at the plenary session.