After a forced separation from the mosque it calls home, a minaret in Georgia has taken on a life of its own. Claiming that the ready-to-go-style structure was essentially smuggled in from Turkey, officials in the small, southern town of Chela pulled the minaret down this week and carted it away, leaving local Muslims sizzling with anger.
Police sealed off the town on August 26 when the authorities ran off with the mosque's call-to-prayer tower. Protests against the measure resulted in clashes with police and several arrests. The residents were quickly released, but protests among Georgia's Muslims, who make up the largest religious minority in this predominantly Christian country, continued to swell, spreading concerns of religious confrontation.
Faced with criticism by rights activists, as well as the rallies, central government officials issued assurances that nobody intended to limit Georgian Muslims' right to practice their religion. The minaret, they said, was removed because it had not been properly cleared through customs and was put up without the proper permit.
Members of Chela’s Muslim community, however, alleged that several Georgian Orthodox Church priests and members of a nearby Church parish had pushed officials to take the measure so as to stop the mosque from broadcasting its daily calls to prayer.
Several influential humans rights and rule-of-law watchdogs said that even if the minaret was imported and put up illegally, the forcible removal was an excessively strict enforcement of the laws. Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani was among the senior officials who agreed that removing the minaret was unacceptable, but she also did little to defuse tensions by saying that Georgian society needs to decide collectively whether or not to have a minaret in the country.
Meanwhile, the leadership of the highly influential Georgian Orthodox Church, the Patriarchy, distanced itself from the incident, describing it as a provocation.
In the end, it reportedly took interference by Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili to bail the impounded minaret out of custody. But a group of Georgian Orthodox believers blocked a road to Chela in a counter-demonstration to prevent the wandering minaret’s return.
Georgia, the region’s most avidly Christian nation, has seen several incidents recently between Christian and Muslim communities that involved rural Georgian Orthodox Church parishes attempting to prevent Muslim rituals.