Georgia has moved ahead with plans to make religious irreverence punishable by law, prompting freedom-of-expression concerns in this observant Orthodox Christian society. The so-called blasphemy bill, now approved at committee-level and headed for the parliamentary floor, bodes ill for groups at odds with the mainstream, critics claim.
In a country where cars, apartments and offices sport cross-emblazoned stickers as a sign of a priest’s blessing, the concern is not idle. According to a 2015 poll conducted by WIN/Gallup International, Georgia ranks among the world’s most religious nations. Many Georgians are hypersensitive to any criticism of the Church, seen as the historical defender of Georgia’s national identity. In 2013, Patriarch Ilia II ranked as the country's most trusted public figure.
Against that backdrop, individuals ranging from writers and artists to minority religions and the LGBT community have encountered a fight at one time or another with those who believe veneration for the Church should take precedence over civil rights.
Some observers charge that the draft law will make the Church all but impervious to critical scrutiny.
The proposed bill would impose a 100-lari fine ($120) for insults to religious feelings and double the amount for a repeat offense. An act of desecration would cost an offender 500 lari (about $200); a second act 1,000 laris ($401.61). With the average monthly salary no more than about 818 laris ($328.51), those fines are not insignificant.
Supporters, referring to a perceived increase in sectarian tensions, argue, though, that the bill is meant to protect all religious persuasions. In the west of the country, members of Georgian Orthodox congregations have opposed the openings of mosques and madrassas, and even nailed a pig’s head to a Muslim school.
Still, some religious minorities don’t expect to benefit from the law and believe it is geared toward the dominant church. “This law is not going to protect anyone; at least, not the minorities, and will be a powerful tool against freedom of speech,” Rusudan Gotsiridze, an Evangelical Baptist bishop, commented to Liberali.ge.
The Georgian Ombudsman’s Office agreed that the law could stunt democratic development. “The current wording proposes the ‘insult of religious feelings’ as the sole criterion for limiting freedom of expression, which… subjects one individual to another’s (a believer’s) will and this places the believers in a privileged position,” said Ombudsman Ucha Nanuashvili in a February 3 statement.
The Georgian Orthodox Church is already in a privileged position through a constitutional pact with the state, an ever-growing network of basilicas and a tendency to weigh in on secular matters. It has called in the past for a mechanism to protect religious beliefs, but on February 4 its governing body, the patriarchy, stated that the Church had not proposed the bill at hand.
The draft has good chances for parliamentary approval -- particularly in a parliamentary election year. With some reservations, the ruling Georgian Dream Coalition endorsed the document at a February 2 human-rights committee hearing that was snubbed by minority lawmakers.
The bill is sponsored by actor-turned-lawmaker Soso Jachvliani, a conservative persona known for starting a brawl in parliament and for his poor grasp of what "EBRD" means. He has termed the draft legislation "very soft."
But there are divisions over the law both within and outside the ruling coalition. Tamar Kordzaia, a lawmaker from the Republican Party, a moderate member of the Georgian Dream coalition, voiced objections to the bill.
Its catch-all restriction on remarks about the Church would upset the existing balance of civil liberties and comes short of international human rights standards, she argued.
“In many cases, there can be a clash between freedom of expression and freedom of religion, but it is a matter of priorities among the liberties,” Kordzaia told Netgazeti.ge. “A perceived insult to religious feelings should be disputed by an individual. The state can never know if some particular action is offensive to a particular individual.”