04 August 2008
By Matthew Collin
The defrocked priest left jail much more quietly than he had arrived. Basili Mkalavishvili, a Georgian Orthodox extremist imprisoned in 2004 for masterminding attacks on Jehovah's Witnesses and Baptist evangelists, was freed recently after serving two-thirds of his sentence. Mkalavishvili, who was excommunicated more than a decade ago after criticizing the Orthodox Church for not taking a tougher line against religious minorities, incited a series of raids on groups that he regarded as heretical sects.
Father Basili, as the maverick preacher was known, had established a power base at a Tbilisi church, where he established his renegade "eparchy." His fanatical disciples, armed with clubs as well as crosses, chanted religious slogans as they stormed buildings where "heretics" met and burned their Bibles. A warrant was issued for Mkalavishvili's arrest, but it wasn't until after the Rose Revolution that the authorities felt confident enough to detain him, as he was believed to have significant public support in Georgia.
When the police finally came for him, he was determined to put up a fight. His supporters barricaded themselves inside their church, and riot squads had to break down the door and use batons and tear gas on his flock before they could seize the maverick preacher.
Before his arrest, Father Basili had accused the new government of supporting deviant sects. "Mikheil Saakashvili wants to destroy Orthodox Christianity in Georgia," he claimed. Before Saakashvili came to office, some of his allies had worked as civil-rights campaigners and had been involved in defending the rights of religious minorities; they too had been visited by Christian vigilantes, who smashed up their offices.
As the church is by far the most respected institution in Georgian society, religion continues to play a role in politics here, with politicians keen to highlight their piety. During opposition demonstrations earlier this year, both sides accused each other of acting in an ungodly manner, and the Georgian patriarch intervened at critical points when tensions were threatening to escalate. In recent elections, a new pro-church party became a significant player in parliament, proving that God wins votes.
Father Basili thought he was defending traditional values against pernicious foreign influences. Despite his release from prison, his campaign of holy terror seems to be over, but whether society has become more tolerant of religious minorities is debatable. Many Georgians were disgusted by the rebel cleric's violence, but the country's human-rights ombudsman said, "tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands" believe that ideologically, he was right.
Matthew Collin is a journalist in Tbilisi.
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