The Old Parliament Building in central Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, in a 2014 photo.

Georgia’s parliament is tomorrow (26 September) set to sign into law changes to the country’s Constitution, including restrictions to freedom of religion or belief, which, human rights defenders say, will be used to “legitimise” violations.

The proposed amendments would restrict religious freedom on the basis of “state [national] security or public safety”, “the prevention of crime”, and “the implementation of justice”, and have been criticised by the opposition, as well as the Public Defender (human rights ombudsperson), religious communities and human rights defenders.

Georgia’s Council of Religions said in a statement on 2 August that the addition of safety-and-security causes “raises utmost concern … [as they] are not easily foreseeable and create a high risk for their misuse in pursuing aims unlike those necessary for the existence of a legitimate and democratic state”.

“Freedom of religion and belief has been moved from being a human right into being solely a security issue,” Baptist Bishop Rusudan Gotsiridze told regional news service Forum 18, calling it a “logical new step in the government’s current strategy”.

“The new draft leaves the impression that the authors consider freedom of religion and freedom of expression to be especially dangerous rights,” law professor Konstantine Vardzelashvili told Forum 18. He said restricting freedom of religion based on hypothetical threats was “unjustifiable” and that “the risk that the state will interfere in freedom of religion without any grounds is very high”.

Tomorrow’s third and final reading of the proposed amendments is likely to be accepted by the parliament, as the ruling Georgian Dream party has a majority of 115 of the 150 available seats.

‘Abuse, intolerance and confrontations’

Although Georgia is a majority-Christian country, non-Georgian Orthodox religious communities “already face freedom of religion and belief violations”, according to Mariam Gavtadze from Georgia’s Tolerance and Diversity Institute, writing for Forum 18.

Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Catholics and Protestants “repeatedly face obstruction from local municipal councils and national state bodies, such as the State Agency for Religious Issues, to building new places of worship”, says Gavtadze, while the authorities “have a long record of ineffective investigations and non-prosecution of those who prevent people exercising their freedom of religion and belief”.

The Council of Religions, which is made up of 19 religious communities, said in its statement: “We have been victims of abuse, intolerance and confrontations while practising religion. If the abovementioned vague and unpredictable causes are added to the supreme law of the country, we may be faced with the legitimation of unjustified restriction of religious freedom on the basis of the Constitution.”

‘Deteriorating’ human rights

Father Kakhaber Gogotishvili, Deputy Head of the Georgian Orthodox Patriarchate’s Foreign Relations Department, said the violation of the rights of other religious communities in Georgia was “totally unacceptable”, and that “if the Patriarchate sees the threat during the adoption of the law, it will definitely voice its opinion”.

He added that he didn’t see a problem with the proposed Constitutional amendment giving recognition to the “special role of the Apostolic Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Georgia”.

However, the Council of Religions said this could “create grounds for the assumption that the State restricted freedom of religion and belief through recognising the role of the Orthodox Church. Such formulation of the provision is a step towards a deterioration of the human rights standard”.

The Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, which advises on draft constitutions and constitutional amendments, warned that “in order to achieve an adequate balance between the right to freedom of belief and conscience and competitive interests, the scope of this right will be interpreted too narrowly or the restriction ground ‘violation of the rights of others’ will be interpreted [too] broadly.” However, on 22 September, it “reiterate[d] its previous positive assessment” of the amendments.