“Critics fear law will limit freedom of speech in one of the world’s most devout Christian countries.” This bill is extremely foolish; the Christians may want it in Georgia, but it coincides with the global push by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to compel the West to adopt Sharia blasphemy laws. The Christians of Georgia may ultimately find this measure, if it becomes law, being used against them. It is Islamic supremacists worldwide who are constantly claiming that their feelings have been hurt, and that non-Muslims have to change their behavior accordingly. A bill like this one plays into the hands of such claims, and paves the way for the tyranny of the insulted.
“Georgia proposes ‘blasphemy bill’ to outlaw religious insults,” by Giorgi Lomsadze, Eurasianet.org, February 8, 2016:
Georgia is planning a “blasphemy bill” that will make religious irreverence punishable by law, prompting concerns about freedom of expression in the devoutly Orthodox Christian society.
Critics say the bill, which has been approved at committee stage and is headed for the parliamentary floor, could be used against any organisations not following the official church line.
Georgia ranks among the world’s most religious nations, with residents extremely sensitive to any criticism of the church which is seen as the historical defender of the country’s national identity. In 2013, Patriarch Ilia II ranked as the country’s most trusted public figure.
The proposed bill would impose a 100 lari fine ($120) for “insults to religious feelings”, which would double for a repeat offence. Desecrating a religious symbol could cost up to 1,000 lari. With the average monthly salary no more than about 818 laris, the amounts are not insignificant.
Supporters argue that the bill is intended to protect all religious persuasions, although minority groups say they don’t expect to benefit. “This law is not going to protect anyone; at least not the minorities, and will be a powerful tool against freedom of speech,” said Rusudan Gotsiridze, an Evangelical Baptist bishop, to Liberali.ge.
In the west of the country, Georgian Orthodox congregations have opposed the opening of mosques and madrasas. In a sign of inter-faith tensions, a pig’s head was nailed to the door of a planned Muslim school.
The Georgian ombudsman’s office has expressed doubts about the law. “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 will and places the believers in a privileged position,” said ombudsman Ucha Nanuashvili.
The Georgian Orthodox church is already in a privileged position because of its constitutional pact with the state, an ever-growing network of basilicas and a tendency to weigh in on secular matters. Although it has called for a mechanism to protect religious beliefs, authorities insist that the church is not behind the proposed bill.
The draft is likely to be passed, particularly in a parliamentary election year. The ruling Georgian Dream Coalition endorsed the document on 2 February at a human rights committee hearing that was snubbed by minority MPs. The bill is sponsored by conservative actor-turned-MP Soso Jachvliani.
But the bill has caused divisions both within and outside the ruling coalition. Tamar Kordzaia, an MP from the moderate Republican Party, a member of the Georgian Dream coalition, has spoken against it.
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 said.
“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.”