Hundreds of Muslim Georgians who live in the autonomous republic of Adjara, in southwestern Georgia, held a protest rally, on February 5, in the regional capital of Batumi. The protesters demanded that Georgian authorities give them permission to construct a new, large mosque in the city. The participants of the rally handed authorities a petition with 12,000 signatures of Muslim Georgians. According to the head of the New Mosque Construction Initiative Group, Tariel Nakaidze, “The demands of the Muslims do not extend beyond the constitutional framework, and the government is obliged to respect minority rights” (Interpressnews.ge, February 5).
This is not the first such public action by Georgian Muslims. In April 2014, following a similar rally in Batumi, Nakaidze told journalists that local Muslims find themselves in a difficult situation because of the Georgian authorities’ unwillingness to resolve the problem of limited numbers of places of worship. The single mosque found in Batumi cannot accommodate all those who want to pray on Fridays, so Muslims are forced to lay their prayer rugs outside and pray out in the street (Dfwatch.net, April 28, 2014).
The Georgian government is worried about accusations of violating minority rights. But even more so, the authorities fear the reaction of the Christian population of Adjara and the Georgian Orthodox Church to any government policies that might be interpreted as too “pro-Muslim.”
At the first glance, it seems strange that the construction of a new mosque in Adjara has prompted such a dispute. After all, in the past 15 years, 240 mosques and 8 madrasas (religious schools) have been built and continue to function in various areas of Georgia, including Adjara. The authorities did not obstruct this process and even helped it along (Geworld.ge, March 1, 2012). However, the debate over the construction of a larger mosque in Batumi is tied to a range of delicate, historical and contemporary issues that have muddied present-day relations between Georgia and Turkey. These issues, in particular, include the geopolitical projects of the current Turkish authorities, spearheaded by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
In the middle of the 19th century, the Turkish Sultan Abdullah Azizie built the Aziz (Azizie) Mosque in Batumi as a conspicuous symbol of Adjara region’s status as part of the Ottoman Empire. Christian Adjara ended up in the Ottoman Empire at the end of 16th century, and was freed from Ottoman rule only in 1878, after Turkey lost a two-year war to Russia. Under Ottoman suzerainty, the population of Adjara had converted to Islam, but retained their Georgian language rather than adopting Turkish (Advantour.com, accessed February 8). The Aziz Mosque was subsequently destroyed sometime in the 1940s, during Soviet rule (Radiotavisupleba.ge, January 14, 2011).
Present-day Turkish authorities conflate the construction of a new large mosque in Batumi with the long-held goal to restore the historic Aziz Mosque—even though the new mosque’s location will be different since the old mosque site is overbuilt with new structures. In 2012, during his official visit to Turkey, then–Georgian prime minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili, stated that the issues of the Aziz Mosque and the restoration of historical Georgian Churches in Turkey were being discussed in parallel. According to Ivanishvili, a final agreement was reached to build a new mosque in Batumi. In turn, the Turkish government promised that a group of Georgian experts and architects would have an opportunity to attend restoration activities of the Oshki and Ishkhani churches in Turkey (Newscafe.ge, September 9, 2012).
Nevertheless, many Georgian politicians and experts fear that the construction project of the new large mosque in Batumi is tied to the Turkish government’s desire to restore its influence in Adjara and even subsequently to annex the region from Georgia (see below).
Turkey considers the Aziz Mosque to be part of its cultural and historical heritage and insists on restoring the mosque in its original form. Ankara conditions restoring the Georgian Christian churches on Turkish territory on the restoration of the Aziz Mosque in Georgia. However, the Georgian-Turkish agreement on this issue was never finalized, because some influential forces in Georgia attacked its provisions.
First of all, the Georgian Orthodox Church called on the authorities to reject the agreement with Turkey. The Georgian Church advised the government in Tbilisi to suspend talks with Ankara and instead to ask UNESCO to defend the Christian heritage in Turkey (Geworld.ge, January 1, 2012).
Following the Georgian Orthodox Church’s declaration, members of the Christian community of Adjara, which makes up around 65 percent of the overall population of the autonomous republic, rallied against the restoration of the Ottoman-era mosque. Many Georgian politicians supported these protests. The deputy chairman of the Georgian parliament, Murman Dumbadze (a lawmaker from Adjara), stated that it was unacceptable to restore “a mosque named after the invader—Sultan Abdullah Azizie”—in Batumi. Dumbadze said that constructing a new mosque in Batumi would be the right move; however, the construction should not be done with Turkish money or be carried out in such a way as to highlight Ottoman influence in Adjara (Newscafe.ge, February 21, 2013).
Some Georgian observers who suspect Turkey of neo-imperialistic ambitions in the region most often say that Ankara uses the needs of local Muslims to advance Turkish interests. Several years ago, the leader of the nationalist left-wing Georgian Troupe (Kartuli Dasi) party, Jondi Bagaturia, asserted that “all mosques and other Muslim enterprises in Georgia are built and financed by Turkish funds, which are supported by imperialistic circles [sic] in Turkey” (Author’s interview, May 16, 2014). Furthermore, Bagaturia referenced an earlier speech by the then–Turkish minister of foreign affairs, Ahmet Davutoğlu, in which Turkey’s top diplomat conspicuously listed Batumi as part of the Ottoman Empire. “Now we intend to establish new relations between Sarajevo and Damascus, between Benghazi and Batumi,” Davutoğlu declared in 2013. “We will do it peacefully. Without fighting, but respecting boundaries. Now our country is different, not like 110 years ago, [when] Yemen and Skopje, Batumi and Benghazi were part of a single country—the Ottoman Empire” the former head of the Turkish foreign ministry said (Georgia Times, April 10, 2013).
Despite Davutoğlu’s diplomatic caution when discussing Turkey’s Ottoman past, such statements nevertheless increase local phobias in Georgia. Moreover, these fears feed on the rising influence of Turkish businesses in Adjara, where Turkish investments make up over 70 percent of the total. In addition, the number of Turkish citizens residing in Adjara also keeps increasing (The Messenger, April 17, 2012). As long as those fears and suspicions are not alleviated, the Georgian government has few incentives to respond positively to the lawful demands of Adjara’s Muslim minority.