Baptist leaders in the former Soviet-bloc country of Georgia are speaking out against a proposed national bill that would criminalize insulting a religion or religious leaders.
They fear the bill against blasphemy would be used against them and other minority faiths in a nation dominated by the Georgian Orthodox Church.
Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili, who leads the Peace Cathedral in Tbilisi, expressed concerns about the legislation.
Songulashvili, who led the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia from 1994-2013, wrote a book on the history of Baptists in Georgia published last year by Baylor University Press.
The Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia includes 72 churches with just over 5,000 members.
All Protestants amount to less than 2 percent of the 4.5 million people in the country.
“We are all very concerned about proposed blasphemy law,” Songulashvili told EthicsDaily.com. “We are going to invest all our energy to prevent adoption of this law teaming up with numerous human right organizations and NGOs [non-governmental organizations].”
“The initiative to pass such a law came from the Georgian Orthodox Church although now they claim that they have nothing to do with the proposal,” he added. “For the last few months, the Orthodox Church has been openly criticized by a number of NGOs and journalists for its greed, lack of compassion and corruption. The church is keen to silence these voices as we prepare for parliamentary elections this autumn.”
The proposed bill would levy fines against people who offer “public expression of hatred towards religious objects, religious organizations, clergymen and believers and/or publication of the material aimed at insulting believers’ feelings.”
Defenders of the bill and earlier versions of it point to criticisms of the Orthodox Church on social media and by journalists and other writers.
If passed, a first-time fine would amount to 300 lari (or about $120), with the fine doubled for repeat offenders.
The average monthly salary in the nation is only about 900 lari, with many people making much less.
Baptists speaking out against the legislation include Bishop Rusudan Gotsiridze, the first woman bishop in Eastern Europe.
The Bishop of Gori and Central Georgia, Gotsiridze was one of the recipients of the U.S. Secretary of State’s 2014 International Women of Courage Award.
Multiple Baptists in Georgia noted to EthicsDaily.com her prominent role in critiquing the proposed bill.
In Georgian media earlier this month, Gotsiridze declared the bill would not protect minorities and would instead “be a powerful tool against freedom of speech.”
“Though the problem of publicly expressed hatred is obvious and mostly religious minorities are targets of the hostility, I strongly believe that the legal restrictions can never solve the problem,” she told EthicsDaily.com. “The proposed law, both in its content and form, is clearly incompliant with freedom of expression as well as to the requirement of predictability of law and, ultimately, poses danger to democratic developments.”
Complicating issues of religion and politics is the relationship between the government and the Georgian Orthodox Church.
Article 9 of the Constitution of Georgia, adopted in 1995, enshrines the special status of the Georgian Orthodox Church even while pledging “absolute freedom of belief and religion.”
A special agreement between the government and the Georgian Orthodox Church in 2002 further codified the church’s special position in the nation’s civic and social life.
Gotsiridze said the “media, educational system as well as the cultural space of the country are heavily influenced by informal power of the Patriarchate.”
“They can dictate the new study books’ standards to the Ministry of Education,” she explained. “They protest if the religious themes are used either in literature or in art or drama without their ‘blessing’ and without taking into consideration their frames and dogmas.”
She added that governmental leaders even talked recently “about transmitting the right to pardon prisoners to the Head of the Orthodox Church, which is the prerogative of the President now.”
In this context, recent criticisms of the Orthodox Church spurred consideration of the proposed blasphemy bill.
“Recently there have been new developments in the civil society where people are bold enough to ask the Georgian Orthodox Church to make its finances transparent,” Gotsiridze noted. “They speak about the corruption in the Church as well as about the danger of very tangible de-secularization or the theocracy. Every time similar texts are published in media, the church starts talking about defamation or blasphemy.”
Although the ruling political coalition endorsed the legislation and the bill received a favorable vote at the committee level earlier this month, Gotsiridze remains hopeful the proposed legislation will fail.
“I doubt the bill is going to have a successful process,” she said.
However, she speaks out against it since she worries about the consequences of it passing.
She also said Baptists in other countries could help by trying to “persuade your international political elite to send recommendations to our government.”
Brian Kaylor is editor and president of Word&Way, associate director of Churchnet, and a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com.