Georgia's interior ministry is taking the lead in fighting blasphemy, an offense category not usually a pressing concern for "European-style" governments these days. The motion has given the country’s free-speech activists pause.
The measure, an amendment to Georgia's civil code, addresses anything from desecrating religious institutions and symbols to publicly offending the feelings of the faithful. The punishment proposed ranges from a fine (for first-time offenders, between 300 and 500 laris, or about $179 to $299, and up to 1,500 laris, or roughly $897, for repeat offenders) and/or 15 days in prison.
How offenses would be defined was not immediately clear. Nor are the origins of the amendment clear. Civil-rights activists say that they noticed the proposal on the interior ministry's website during a first reading in parliament of changes to the civil code before the October 28 presidential elections. EurasiaNet.org could not immediately locate the original proposal.
In comments to Maestro TV on November 5, a Church spokesperson indicated that the Church will support the interior ministry's proposal since, "like any member of society, it needs defense . . . "
Critics, though, fear that the amendment and its broad definitions run counter to the constitutional right of freedom of expression. Particularly in regard to the Georgian Orthodox Church, the country's single most influential institution and a powerful symbol of national identity. Such status already effectively protects the Church from in-depth, public criticism. What criticism exists is often limited to debates on Facebook and online publications with a limited audience reach.
"We believe that such a clause will set arbitrary and unjustified restrictions on freedom of expression and will be a threat to free public discourse,” reads a collective statement from major rights groups such as The Georgian Young Lawyers' Association and Transparency International Georgia.*
But in a society which pays increasing homage to the Church -- cars and shops often feature stamps that indicate they have been blessed (for a fee) by a priest -- that position may have limited appeal. While the May 17 priest-led attack on Tbilisi demonstrators against homophobia and rows with local Muslim communities have led to a significant outpouring of anger against the Church, overall, veneration for the institution runs stronger than censure.
The government, fresh out of a presidential election and on the verge of a change of prime ministers (and, most likely, interior ministers), has not responded yet to the criticism.