The Georgian authorities’ decision to dismantle a mosque minaret in the village of Chela on August 26 triggered an incident in the Samtskhe-Javakheti and Adjara regions where tensions between Christians and Muslims have surfaced for the first time in many decades (http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=26386). Locals said that the actions of the police and construction workers, who were specifically brought for this purpose from the neighboring town of Akhaltsikhe, took them by complete surprise. “In the morning we saw that unknown people were dismantling our sacred minaret and trying to take it away, loading it on a truck. Young villagers tried to stop them, but several of them were beaten up and arrested,” Merab Tsetskhladze, a Chela resident recounted (Author’s interview, August 29).
It later came to light that the Tax Service of the Ministry of Finance hired the company to execute the dismantling. “We had information that the minaret construction was unlawfully imported from Turkey. So we had to examine the evidence. But we are prepared to return the minaret to its place at our own expense after the completion of all legal procedures,” a source in the Ministry of Finance that wished to remain anonymous reassured Jamestown (Author’s interview, August 29). For now Tbilisi and Ankara have kept quiet about the foreign policy implications of this serious incident.
Muslim residents of Chela do not believe that a tax audit was the actual cause of the dismantling of the religious building. The village is rife with rumors that the Georgian Orthodox Church is jealous of the rise of Islam’s popularity in the Samtskhe-Javakheti region. According to the villagers, Georgian authorities resented the fact that the minaret was paid for by one of numerous Islamic funds in Turkey (http://www.interpressnews.ge/ge/sazogadoeba/251176-thurqul-mkhares-sofel-tcelas-minarethi-22-athasi-lira-daujda.html).
Georgian legislation does not explicitly prohibit the construction of minarets, but an unofficial ban persists in the country. The authorities invariably stand against such construction projects, fearing the rise of religious tensions. “A private person brought the minaret from Turkey without our consent, and it was installed in secret in Chela in one night. So we had all grounds to fear there would be tensions,” a regional official, Khatuna Khomasuridze, explained to Jamestown on August 29.
However, the phobias of the local authorities and among some Georgian Christians nearly ended in bloodshed as the Georgian Muslims attempted to liberate the villagers who were earlier arrested. Protesters broke the regional police station’s fence and entered into fistfights with Georgian special police forces. Several people received injuries, and 20 demonstrators were arrested (http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=26386). However, the authorities, fearing further escalation, soon released all of the arrested, serving them only with a symbolic fine of 400 lari ($240). Almost all participants of the protest then went to the Adjara autonomous republic and gathered in the primary mosque in Batumi. Adjara’s mufti and the head of the directorate of Georgian Muslims, Jemal Paskadze, issued a warning that if the minaret was not returned to Chela, the Muslims would perceive it as a brazen breach of their religious rights. Having come to the mosque, President Mikheil Saakashvili supported the mufti, stating that the actions of Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili’s government “are spoiling Georgia’s relations with Turkey and Azerbaijan, and the country might end up facing Russian alone” (http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=26390).
The head of the Autonomous Republic of Adjara, Archil Khabadze, told the Muslims in the mosque that he had persuaded Ivanishvili to return the minaret to Chela (http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=26395). However, the final decision was taken after talks between Christian and Muslim clerics in Tbilisi. Ilia II, the Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia, personally met the muftis (http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=26398). “We reached an agreement that the minaret will go back to its lawful owner,” but it will not be put back up, a spokesperson for the Georgian Orthodox Church stated. Christian residents of the Samtskhe-Javakheti region attempted to prevent the agreement’s implementation by blocking a central highway, but the orthodox clerics managed to calm them down to avoid invalidating the compromise (http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=26396).
Nevertheless, the situation remains tense. Georgian Christians fear that the minaret will secretly be restored onto the mosque again, while Georgian Muslims see no possibility to establish their religious life beyond the limits of Adjara.
Protests have shifted to Adjara’s capital, Batumi. The Muslim community now demands the right to construct a large mosque that would become the focal point for all Muslims in Georgia. However, Georgian authorities are cool to the idea, while Adjara’s Christians are gearing up to stage demonstrations against the proposed new mosque (http://www.pravda.ru/news/world/05-03-2012/1110344-batumi-0).
Experts differ on who is behind the rise of religious tensions in the country. Independent analyst Mikhail Tavkhelidze is convinced that accusing Turkey of involvement in the latest events is unjustified. “Turkey is not interested in Georgia’s destabilization [or in] provoking clashes between Christians and Muslims. The only country whose security services are interested in such an outcome and have the experience of provoking such conflicts is Russia,” Tavkhelidze said. According to the expert, “The KGB, GRU [military intelligence] and their contemporary successors have retained an extensive network of ‘agents of influence’ in Georgia, [who] provoke harmful excesses” (Author’s interview, August 29).
The leader of the political party “Georgian Assembly,” Jondi Bagaturia, holds the opposite view. Georgian authorities had to “curb the impertinent actions of the Turkish security services to advance political Islam in Georgia,” the politician said. “Turkey is trying to use Islam to strengthen its positions in Adjara and Samtskhe-Javakheti. They dream of establishing ‘a Greater Turkey’ inside the borders of the [former] Ottoman Empire, from Batumi to Benghazi. Turkey’s Minister of Foreign Affairs [Ahmet] Davutoglu has recently stated this,” Bagaturia asserted (Author’s interview, August 29). The politician expressed his discontent with how “the Georgian authorities allow the agents of the Turkish security services to act freely and spread Islam for imperialist and aggressive purposes in the southern regions of [Georgia]” (Author’s interview, August 29).
However, not all experts interviewed by Jamestown agree with such conspiracy theories. “There is no need to explain the foolish decisions of particular officials to dismantle the minaret on the pretext of a financial oversight […] with foreign agents’ sabotage,” political analyst Georgi Nodia told Jamestown on August 29.
Ankara doubtlessly follows the events in Adjara very closely. According to the 1921 Kars Agreement, Turkey has legal rights to defend Muslims in this region (http://www.georgiatimes.info/en/analysis/89074-1.html). During the last meeting of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Ivanishvili, the two sides reached an agreement about constructing a large mosque in Batumi. But Georgia’s head of government failed to make good on the promise because of the protests of Christians in Adjara. Diplomatic pressure from Ankara is bound to increase, since Erdogan’s government has traditionally paid great attention to the issue of protecting Muslims’ rights in neighboring countries. And contemporary Georgia is too dependent on Turkey economically to ignore Ankara’s concerns about the rising tensions around Adjara and its Georgian Muslim community.