Orthodox Church, Muslim Clerics agree on terms of minaret return

The Georgian Orthodox Church said that an agreement had been reached after a meeting with senior Georgian Muslim clerics that minaret, removed by the authorities from a mosque in Chela, should be returned back to the village but not re-erected, at least for now.

But later on the same day two high-ranking Orthodox clerics told anti-minaret demonstrators in Akhaltsikhe that the minaret would be re-erected neither now nor in the future.

The meeting with participation of head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Ilia II, was held in the Patriarchate in Tbilisi amid anti-minaret protest rally in Akhaltsikhe, led by individuals with close links to local Orthodox clerics; some Orthodox priests were also present at the rally.

“The Georgian Patriarchate completely shares fair protest of the Orthodox believers about what has happened,” says the statement read out by Patriarchate’s spokesman Davit Shervashidze.

Jemal Paksadze, the mufti of the Georgian Muslims' Directorate was also present as Patriarchate’s spokesman was reading out the statement after the meeting.  

“At the same time we also take into consideration the stance of the Muslim population and in agreement with the Muslim Directorate we declare the following: 1. Let the minaret be stored in the village of Chela on a neutral territory, let it be sealed and protected by the state; 2. Not to erect it anywhere before the legislative basis is regulated and before negotiations between the Patriarchate and the Muslim Directorate; 3.  To request the government to start working on defining by the law reasonability of construction of religious buildings and issuing of permits in order to prevent confrontation and disturbances on the religious grounds,” reads the statement.

“We also appeal to the Christian and Muslim perish to refrain from rallying, to keep calm and mutual respect,” it says.

Jemal Paksadze, the mufti of the Georgian Muslims' Directorate, said: “The minaret will return back to its owner, back to the village; it will be stored and then after the mutual agreement and in accordance to the law we will resolve rest of the issues.”

 After the talks in the Patriarchate, two senior Orthodox clerics – Metropolitan Theodore of Akhaltsikhe and Bishop Jakob headed to Akhaltsikhe to meet with protesters there and to call on them to disperse.

They praised protesters, who were blocking the road in an attempt to prevent transportation of the minaret from Tbilisi back to the village of Chela, for the rally and told them, that the minaret “will not be re-erected.”

“It’s an incredible day today… Your presence here yielded a huge result,” Metropolitan Theodore told demonstrators late on Thursday evening.

He said that an agreement also involved creation of a joint council at the Patriarchate of Orthodox Christian and Muslim clerics that will allow regular contacts to prevent “such a situation and tensions.”

“We decided that the minaret will no longer be erected,” Metropolitan Theodor said to applause from the crowd.

But demonstrators chanted their disapproval when Orthodox clerics told them that the minaret should be returned back to Chela to its legal owner in accordance to the law and “stored there”. “We should not respond illegality with same illegality,” he said.

“The law has spoken – illegally constructed [minaret] was disassembled. But this [minaret], which will not be re-erected, is a private property and it will be illegal if it is not returned back to its owner,” another high-ranking Orthodox cleric, Bishop Jakob, told the crowd with the latter responding with ‘no, no’ chants, interrupting the bishop’s speech. “Yes, I can understand your ‘no’… but it [minaret] won’t be re-erected, that’s ruled out. We guarantee that. We know that for sure.”

Despite initial refusal, the rally dispersed later on August 29.

Formally the reason for removal of the minaret was a decision by the Revenue Service at the Finance Ministry, which said that the minaret was removed for the purpose of its inspection to verify if the metal construction materials, used for building of the minaret, were properly declared when cargo was imported into Georgia from Turkey on July 14. The Revenue Service has claimed that construction material was possibly not correctly classified by importer in its declaration with a purpose of reducing amount due to be paid on import tax.

The Revenue Service said in a statement on August 29, that inspection of the minaret was completed; it said that irregularities in classification found and now the minaret “is being returned.”

A group of eight civil society organizations said in their joint statement that the removal of the minaret by the Revenue Service was “illegal” and called on chief prosecutor’s office to investigate the case.

Adapted from civil.ge