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“State Has Responsibility to Return Properties Seized during Soviet Period to Corresponding Religious Groups”
Humanrights.ge interviewed the head of the Legal Maintenance Office at the State Agency for Religious Issues Archi Metreveli about ongoing assignment process of the places of worship to religious minority groups and the position of the State about the disputes between the Orthodox Church and other religious groups in Georgia.
-How are the places of worships assigned to religious minorities?
-The law allows us to assign the places of worship to religious groups under the user right without permission to privatize them. Until this miscarriage in the law is eradicated we cannot assign the state-owned buildings to religious groups under different status. However when they receive the chapels as users, they have all rights about it: to rehabilitate, restore, construct, etc.
There is another problem in the law: religious groups are registered as an entity of religious community but their registration form cannot always prove that they really represent any religious group. The state has obligation to assign the properties seized during soviet time to corresponding religious communities and not to concrete organizations which may have less representation. Besides, assignment of the places of worship to religious groups is performed in compliance with the principle of justice. The Georgian legislation does not recognize classic model of restitution. Georgia is not legal descendent of the state, which seized properties from religious groups but since those buildings are now under ownership of the State of Georgia, it feels responsibility to assign them to those religious groups, which historically owned them.
-What is the procedure of assigning the chapels with the user right and where is the process now?
-Recommendatory commission was established within the State Agency for Religious Issues to study the financial and property needs of the religious communities. The Commission is composed of the representatives of the Agency and other institutions and of invited experts. Besides, representative of the religious minority group, whose issue should be discussed, participates in the work of the Commission based on rotation principle. The issues of sites of worship are discussed in the same format. Since the very first day of its establishment the Commission works nonstop to discuss cases of Muslim mosques, Jewish synagogues, permission to construct a Catholic church in Rustavi, issue of granting permission to construct evangelist-protestant church in Gori; the commission will continue functioning until all disputed properties are assigned to their owners.
At this stage, the Agency issued positive recommendations on 11 synagogues and 87 mosques which should be assigned to religious minority groups. The registration process is going on. Since all mosques are not state property, first we estimate whether the building is state property and then it is assigned to the religious group. It should be noted that the agency just issues recommendations about assigning the sites of worship to religious groups and not final decisions. We give recommendations to the government which shall make final decision.
-Disputed buildings also hinder assignment process. For example, a special commission was established to study the case of the disputed building in Mokhe Village but they have not issued any recommendations about it yet. What do you think, how successful is to settle the problems in similar form?
-Positive side of the process is that creation of inter-religious dialogue allowed us to take preventive measures in many other places. We have not identified such acute problems in other places. As for the problem in Mokhe, we are very careful about it. The Agency acts as an arbiter in this process. We offer to resolve the case so that all parties remained satisfied and different religious groups continued peaceful co-existence. It should be underscored that the commission will elaborate only recommendations about property issues and does not make decisions.
-Fate of historical catholic churches is also curious. For example, churches in Kutaisi and Batumi which nowadays belong to the Orthodox Church. Have Catholics applied to your agency with regard to those churches?
-Nowadays, the Catholic Church prefers to construct new chapels. With regard to disputed chapels, the Catholic Church members have never applied to us for help. The Agency can start discussion of property issue of any disputed chapels only after representatives of religious groups apply to us for help. Generally, the state shall not interfere in similar disputes if it does not refer to state properties. It is topic of permanent discussions but procedurally the work on those cases has not started yet.
-Another problematic controversy is between Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic Churches about disputed chapels. Unlike Catholic parish, representatives of the Armenian Church categorically claim the churches under their ownership. How the process about it goes on?
-Armenian Apostolic Diocese has applied to the State Agency for Religious Issues with regard to 442 chapels. Currently, priority is given to those buildings, which may be resolved more easily. The situation about disputed churches is almost similar. Big part of churches now belongs to the Orthodox Church and they already use them. It is significant that we already started consultations about this issue with relevant state institutions and bodies, like Ministry of Culture and Monument Protection and State Agency for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage. The process will continue in similar format because on the one hand it is topic of inter-religious controversy and on the other hand it is issue of cultural heritage because there are plenty of buildings on the list, which have status of cultural heritage and when studying their cases, all legal procedures shall be followed. It could be most comfortable for the state if religious confessions had reached concusses and state had the least role in it.
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