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Religious Minorities in the Labyrinths of Georgian Bureaucracy
Salome Achba, Manon Bokuchava, www.religiebi.info
“They red taped our procedures only for one reason – we were representatives of religious minorities”
Representatives of the Evangelist-Protestant Church allege that the Rustavi City Administration has created bureaucratic barriers for the registration of their chapel in Rustavi. Pastor Giorgi Chitadze spoke about the problem with www.religiebi.info
-We have chapels throughout Georgia. As representatives of religious minorities, we encounter many problems. We have been persecuted since Soviet times.
- We purchased a building in Rustavi in 2004. As soon as the City Administration realized that we intended to convert it into a chapel, all these obstacles arose. We started construction on a cellar two meters away from the chapel, on our land. The inspection service of the City Administration told us that the land did not belong to us and illegally imposed a fine of 3 000 GEL on us. We had a water-tank on the chapel roof and they said it was prohibited and fined us with another 2 000 GEL. If this continues, we will ask international organizations for help and we doubt it will undermine positive reputation of our country.
- We also faced many problems when registering the building of the chapel. We had prepared all required documents and handed them to the former director of Rustavi’s Architecture Service. A week later, they asked us to come to City Hall to hear the decision and when we arrived there I found that 3-4 pages from our documents were torn off. The former head of the Architecture Service told me they could not allow us to register the building when we had not provided all necessary documents. However, I know we had submitted all requested documents and somebody at City Hall must have torn off some of the documents in order to create grounds for refusal of the permit.
- Fortunately, we took care of the problem within 15 minutes. The head of the Architecture Service was surprised over the missing documents and sent our case to the supervision department. However, we encountered new problems in that agency too. In short, they did not allow us to register the building. Based on that decision we sued the city and, finally, managed to register it after having overcome all these bureaucratic obstacles.
-Are you facing any problems now?
-Well, I already mentioned that we decided to build a cellar in the yard of our chapel. They gave us a 3 000 GEL without any preliminary warning, alleging it was not our land. We knew that the law permits underground construction on one’s own land, without permission from City Hall, unless it exceeds 70 centimeters over the ground. However, in our particular case this permission turned out to be necessary and they fined us 3 000 GEL.
- In order to purchase the cellar based on direct registration rule, we had to appeal to the Commission on Recognition of Property Rights on Land and that is what we did. We faced similar problems in Khashuri district too but it was resolved within a week. In KHashuri, no one knew that we were purchasing a building to use as a chapel. But in Rustavi everyone knew and that is why they created all these problems for us. In comparison with Khashuri, where our problem was resolved in a week, after three years we are still trying to overcome the obstacles in Rustavi. In short, we are still fighting for the legalization of this cellar and the city continues to refuse.
-Have you appealed to the court?
-Yes, of course we have appealed. In court, City Hall justified their refusal to legalize the space by claiming that we did not have a land ownership certificate. The judge, having already heard this argument from the City Hall representatives before, asked them why they had not thought of a better argument against us seeing as we had applied to City Hall for that particular document. The Court annulled City Hall’s decision on the cellar, ordered them to review our case again and reach a new decision.
-Did the City Hall commission review your case?
-Yes, they did but only to refuse it again. This time they found a new reason: we could not prove that the territory belonged to us prior to 2007. However, everyone in Rustavi knows that our chapel has been functioning in the building since 2004. Of course we appealed this decision as well and invited witnesses to the trial who confirmed that the building really belonged to us before 2007. The Court again annulled the City Hall decision and ordered them to review it over again.
-What did the commission decide?
-The commission chair told us they had sent a letter to the court clarifying the grounds for passing their decision. The commission members said that they could not resolve our case until the court replies to them.
- Basically they tried to prolong the case. I would like to underscore that almost three years have passed since we started the registration procedures on the cellar. Finally, we appealed to the Public Defender’s Office, the President’s Administration, Chancellery and the Parliament and asked them to assist us. Only the Public Defender’s Office replied to us. They clarified that while they could not directly interfere, they promised to monitor the case procedures, which they are still doing.
- Following a recommendation made by the Public Defender we petitioned the Deputy Secretary of the Security Council in charge of minority issues, Tamar Kintsurashvili, for help. As a result of her personal involvement, some positive steps were taken – we met with the regional governor of Kvemo Kartli, Davit Kirkitadze, who said he had received a call from the Public Defender’s Office and promised to resolve our problem within a few days.
- I do not understand why they created so many bureaucratic obstacles for us if it was so easy to resolve the problem. We are positive that the only reason for the problems we faced is that we represent a religious minority in Georgia.
-We decided to make our case public in order to prevent other minorities from facing similar problems in the future.
-What do the people of Rustavi think about your chapel?
-We started in 2004 and really had some problems with the local population. However, recently the situation has radically changed. Problems have been resolved and we have great relations with local Orthodox people. Moreover, an Orthodox church is being built near our chapel and we have good, friendly relations with their clergyman.
www.religiebi.info got in touch with the head of the Commission on Recognition of Land Property Rights, Amiran Tsandlishvili, and asked him to comment on the issue. Tsandlishvili said that the Commission had positively settled the case and satisfied the requests of Mr. Chitadze’s: “All issues are jointly discussed at the Commission. There are seven members on it and decisions are passed by majority vote. People from Rustavi City Council are members of the Commission. There were diverse approaches and arguments regarding Mr. Giorgi’s case which led to the initial refusals. We held a third session on his case and the Commission granted Chitadze’s request. We wish him to peacefully use the land. I can assure you that the Commission discussed Chitadze’s case just like the cases of other applicants. A lot of applications that are sent to the Commission are denied. We do not pay attention to the religious or ethnic belonging of the applicants.”