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Georgia: Islamophobia

Volume 752: debated on Tuesday 4 February 2014

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what representations they are making to the Government of Georgia regarding Islamophobia in that country; and what steps they are taking to ensure freedom of religion and the rights of minority groups there.

My Lords, the UK raises human rights issues on a regular basis with the Georgian Government, both bilaterally and through multilateral institutions such as the EU, the OSCE and the Council of Europe. We have not made any recent representations regarding Islamophobia, but we continue to follow minority rights closely, including through our embassy’s work in Tbilisi and its regional travel. We fund a local NGO to maintain an inter-religion working group, which involves a variety of faith groups, including Muslims.

My Lords, last year, I was fortunate to spend a couple of nights with a Muslim family in Batumi, and the next morning I met the president of the semi-autonomous region there, Mr Archil Khabadze. I pressed the question to him of why there was only one mosque for something like 110,000 out of the 150,000 people, that being the number of Muslims in the city. He said that at that time they would take immediate steps to find more land made available for Muslims in that city. I said that I would be coming back in the next three months to open the mosque with other religious groups. Would Her Majesty’s Government please press the authorities to make sure that the local administration there is asked to fulfil the promise that they made; otherwise, these very open Muslims will soon become radicalised.

The right reverend Prelate raises a really important issue. His Question prompted me to go away and do some research, and I was quite intrigued to find out that just over 10% of Georgia’s population are indeed Muslim—a much larger percentage than in our own communities. The right reverend Prelate will be aware that one of the challenges in Georgia is that the Muslim community is not particularly well engaged politically and therefore does not really put its head above the parapet. I have become aware of low-level discrimination and tensions towards the Muslim community there, but as Georgia moves towards closer EU integration part of its requirement is to fulfil its obligation to bring in anti-discrimination laws.

My Lords, I declare an interest as the chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on International Religious Freedom. My noble friend the Minister also holds the brief for faith communities, so I would be grateful if she would outline whether the Government have actually had meetings with and made representations to the Georgian Orthodox Church, which seems to have aligned itself very much with national identity there and seems to have a privileged position that is not extended to the Muslim, Jewish or Jehovah’s Witness community there.

I know that our embassy in Tbilisi is engaged with all religious organisations on the ground, but I am not sure whether it has had specific discussions on the rising concern about nationalism and Christianity being associated as the only form of Georgian identity. My noble friend makes an important point, and I shall certainly ensure that it is now put on the agenda.

I wonder whether the Minister would allow a slight extension of the Question on the grounds that freedom is indivisible. Not only has Georgia been disfigured recently by actual violent hostility towards Muslims in some areas, but a gay rights demonstration was violently broken up with some connivance from the authorities. Would the Government continue gently to press the Georgian Government, with whom we have such good, close relations, by saying that the Europe that they aspire to join finds both Islamophobia and homophobia totally out of place and unacceptable?

The noble and right reverend Lord makes an important point. Indeed, we raised concerns about the violence at the IDAHO rally in May of last year, for example. LGBT rights, along with the rights of religious minorities, are a cause for concern. They stem from the concern in parts of the Georgian Orthodox Church about a conflict of values—a conflict between Georgian values, which are laid out in a very orthodox way, and what they see as European values, and the kind of anti sentiment towards them.

My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister agree that this is part of a wider problem, not just in Georgia but in Moldova, Belarus and Russia, in that there is a lack of legislation that outlaws this type of inequality, and the ostracism of people from minority groups, which keeps them out of employment, education and political participation? The problem is not just in Georgia. Can my noble friend say what can be done to address it—and indeed homophobia—across the region in a more holistic way?

This is one of the underlying themes of the Eastern Partnership. Georgia is one of six countries that are part of it. At the Vilnius conference at the end of last year there was a process of trying to encourage these countries to look towards Europe and go forward to signing association agreements, and deep and comprehensive fair trade agreements. This was all about trying to bring these countries to a place where the values that we hold dear become part of the norm. Our concern is that even where legislation is introduced it is not properly implemented. Sometimes legislation can have an alienating effect, as it had in Georgia when specific legislation passed in 2011 meant that Georgian Muslims were regulated by the Georgian Muslim department—which felt to the Muslim community there like a sad return to the Soviet era.

My Lords, when the right reverend Prelate asked his original Question, he referred to a conversation in Batumi and mentioned nationalism in the same breath as Orthodox Christianity versus Islam. How far does the Minister think that we are talking about an aspect of nationalism in one respect? These three Transcaucasian ex-Soviet republics have been independent only since 1989-90. Might this not be looked at as much in terms of nationalism as religion?

Yes, my Lords. Unfortunately, Georgia is being presented by many politicians as a Christian country, and the identity and nationality that flow from that are causing some of this underlying tension.