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Nikoloz Antidze – Law on Cultural Heritage to Get More Drastic

Natia Gogolashvili interviewed the Director General of the National Agency for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage Nikoloz Antidze and asked him about the care the state takes of the cultural heritage, what kind of mechanisms are applied to preserve them and why it became necessary to make the law stricter.

Recently several facts of willful transformation and damage of the culture heritage monuments, including churches, have been observed in Georgia. As it is actively discussed in social networks, since based on the Constitutional Agreement – Concordat the state has assigned historical churches and monasteries to the Orthodox Church, the “owner” has right to use “its property” according to their decision. In similar situation, what are the control mechanisms when monuments of cultural heritage are willfully transformed or damaged?

The state agrees all decisions with regard to the property rights with the church. The law protects the monuments of cultural heritage and regardless the fact who is the owner, everybody is obliged to follow the law. Willful transformation of the cultural heritage is inadmissible. The Concordat does not give anybody the power to do whatever they want with the heritage. We have become stricter to similar facts and in 2014 Inspection of Culture Heritage was established. If the heritage is damaged, yet we just warn the relevant person/institution. At the same time, we work on a new code on the cultural heritage and when it will go in force, we will apply stricter sanctions against concrete perpetrators. Nowadays, it is difficult to control the process.

Is perpetrator held responsible under criminal law when a monument is damaged?

Acting Law of Georgia on the Cultural Heritage creates basis for criminal liability but due to current reality it is very difficult to apply this measure against concrete clergies. We have raised issue of criminal liability, have reported the prosecutor’s office about concrete violations but I do not know what was the result of their investigations. That’s why we are insisting on increasing functions of the Inspection on Cultural Heritage. After the new code goes into force, the work of the Inspection will become more effective. 

On the one hand heritage is damaged purposefully and on the other hand people damage it accidentally and unconsciously. Will both facts be punished under the criminal law?

The damage often prevents us to improve anything. If monument is so damaged that it is impossible to improve, of course criminal liability will start against the perpetrator. There is alternative situation, which is more frequent, when “with kind purposes” a monument is damaged during rehabilitation. It is easier to improve this damage and mostly administrative sanctions are used in similar case.

Today, we have positive actions too. For example, we managed to dismantle modern central heating system as a result of correct communication. First of all, to avoid all similar misunderstandings, we should have correct communication with our agency. We should receive information and all planned changes in the heritage must be agreed. Anybody may wish to do something, to install heating system, to repair roof, etc but everything should be regulated. So, they should at least inform us about it. We must know what they are going to do. If we fail to assist them after the notice, then the responsibility will go to the state and not to the person who has warned us. We are working exactly on that – to convince people to inform us about their intention and eradicate possible damage of heritage. Sometimes we succeed but sometimes not.

Considering the European experience, people own cultural heritage but they are obliged to preserve them.

The state has tenfold more responsibility over the monuments of national heritage than over the real estate heritage Moreover if the monument is on the list of the world heritage and it represents us worldwide. 

In accordance to the current legislation, (Article 30 of the Law of Georgia on Cultural Heritage) the responsibility of the listed property owner does not refer +to the heritage under ownership of the Georgian Patriarchate and other religious confessions (legal user), that is very bad and place other listed owners in unequal conditions. We plan to regulate this problem in the new code.

The heritage owner will always have motivation if he gets some profit. There are several international models to motivate and encourage the owner. For example, in New Orleans, population of the French Block is encouraged with reduced communal bills. Instead, they have increased responsibility to take care of the heritage. There are no allowances in Georgia and people damage and destroy the heritage. Consequently, it is very important to increase motivation.

Nowadays, we already see that monuments of cultural heritage are assigned to religious minority groups and it will make preservation of the heritage easier.

The owner and legal user have equal responsibilities. If the owner/user does not take care of the monument, they should be held responsible. For example, in the Officers’ House the paintings of Zdanovich are being damaged and I asked the Inspection to react on the fact.

Do you think is it better if the heritage has concrete owner or not?

Our cooperation with the representatives of religious minorities is less problematic. During the rehabilitation of the Rabati Fortress Complex and vicinity, Catholic Church was reconstructed; they did not do anything without asking our permission. They rarely violate the law. There were several facts in case of Muslims when they followed our instructions.

We saw the Mosque in Sakuneti village, which has status of the cultural heritage. Muslim community requests its assignment under the status of legal user. Currently, the mosque is in poor conditions because nobody takes care of it. In similar case, what are the state responsibilities, when it fails to take care of the heritage?

It is really important that the heritage had legal user, who will have responsibility and obligation to take care of it with the support of the state. For me personally, it is much better if the heritage had concrete persons and organizations as legal users. Otherwise, the state remains alone against huge cultural heritage whose preservation cannot be afforded with the state budget. The state, for sure, spend money on the preservation of heritage but mostly the state should support the owner to correctly rehabilitate the heritage and be good user. Many other monuments are left without care like Sakuneti Mosque.

In similar situations, there is no concrete person who can be held responsible? 

Of course you cannot hold any concrete person responsible for it. We have at least 3-4 monuments in each square kilometer of our country. Huge human and financial resources are needed to take care of all of them. So, I think it will be better if the monuments will be assigned to private owners. I think it is the best solution. In similar situation, the state will keep only the monuments of world cultural heritage and archeological heritage under its supervision. They are very unpreserved nowadays.

When there is controversy about the ownership of one heritage between two religious confession, does it make your work complicated? Does their controversy impact your work?

We refer to the problem simply and pragmatically. When speaking with any of the conflicting parties, we focus only on the cultural value of the heritage because main purpose for us is to maintain it. Conflict between two religious confessions is not topic for the agency.

However there are cases where the parties argue about transformation of the heritage.

Any inadequate transformation, that damages interests of the heritage, is damage. While I worked as a head of the Inspection, I saw numerous examples when horrible things were done in the Georgian churches to destroy the Georgian trace in it. It should be noted that we control the situation in Tbilisi more. An alphabet sign fell from the inscription on Norasheni Church and criminal investigation was launched into the fact. However, we have problems in the regions, where we have less control.

In 2012, Minister of Culture issued edict and status of cultural heritage was granted to few dozen mosques. On the one hand the state took additional responsibility to preserve that heritage but on the other hand there are not enough funds in the budget. The state shall take responsibility to take care of the heritage after granting the status?

Granting status is the first step to preserve the heritage. Let us divide the topic into two parts: declaration and possibilities. We cannot refuse declarations due to lack of financial resources because registration of new monuments of cultural heritage is permanent process. If we do not have resources today, we will have them tomorrow. We permanently discover heritage. Of course it is difficult to request funds for everything. Believe me it is impossible. Not a single country in the world allocates huge funds on cultural heritage. So, we must not stop registration of new monuments because of poor budget. 

There are several mosques in Samtskhe-Javakheti without status. Human Rights Center has addressed the Agency to grant status to them. What will be your response?

We are ready to study all applications. Any person may initiate the status case. On our side, we do not refuse to grant status if it is necessary.

And finally, what main projects were implemented for the past few years and what is planned this year for the preservation of cultural heritage of religious minorities?

In 2014 we implemented project to register cultural monuments in Tbilisi that aimed to evaluate the monuments and study general situation about them. There are several draft projects about Armenian churches located in Tbilisi. For example, restoration of the Surbnishani Church has already started. At this moment we have problems with neighbors and we are conducting negotiations with them. They should leave the territory, otherwise we cannot rehabilitate the church. In 2015, we funded project on the registration of the German cultural heritage with 100 000 GEL. In the frame of the project, we studied the monuments of the German cultural heritage throughout Georgia. Among them were sites of religious worship – Lutheran Churches. This year we will select three buildings and fund their rehabilitation. With huge effort of the Agency, historical Lutheran Church in Asureti village was saved from willful transformation. We also drafted project on the rehabilitation of Kumurdo, monument of the tenth century. This year we will start its rehabilitation.

The article was prepared in the frame of the project implemented with financial support of the Government of Canada. This article does not necessarily reflect the views of the donor. Human Rights Center bears sole responsibility for the content of the article.
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