DRI responds to reports of alleged theft of cross in Marneuli and Hujabi Diocese

The Democracy Research Institute is responding to the information spread on January 27, 2021 by the Marneuli and Hujabi Diocese regarding the theft of a cross from the Gagi Fortress. The above was preceded by a confrontation between ethnic Azerbaijani citizens of Georgia and the local diocese in the village of Meore Kesalo in the Marneuli municipality.

On January 26, a statement was posted on the Facebook pages – Alilo Marneuli and Marneuli Hujabi, according to which, the solemn erection of the "barbarically" stolen cross was scheduled for January 27, following the blessing of Bishop Giorgi Jamdeliani. The statement was followed by high online interaction. The comments included sharply anti-Azerbaijani, ethno-nationalist messages containing religious extremism and threats.

The Marneuli events were covered on the online media platform of Alt-Info - a far-right, ultranationalist group. It was noted during the January 25 online programme Alt-Analytica that "Azerbaijanis are against the monastery in Marneuli". The far-right groups - Georgian March and Georgian Idea also responded to the theft and re-erection of the cross in Marneuli. On January 28, the Georgian Idea posted a video recorded in the Gagi Fortress, with the caption - “The cross was stolen by the profane“, on its Facebook page. Leaders of the Georgian March and Georgian Idea, Irakli Shikhiashvili and Levan Chachua, attended the ceremony of re-erection of the cross. It should also be noted that Giorgi Jamdeliani, Bishop of the Marneuli and Hujabi Diocese, used hate speech when talking to the locals.

DRI considers that if the reports are confirmed, stealing a cross or damaging it on the religious motive may be one of the indicators of a hate crime and needs to be properly investigated. It is also important to note that a significant percentage of the locals perceived the incident as a case motivated by hate.

Given the context preceding the theft of the cross, the passive role of the State is troubling. Without proper response by the authorities, the spread of extremist narratives and radicalization may deepen and expand the confrontation between the local diocese and the ethnic Azerbaijani population, which may escalate into a conflict.

At the same time, DRI is concerned about the manipulation of this topic by extremist groups that have radical ideology, and believes that the active role of the above groups is the result of the inaction of the State and the wrong policies pursued by it. Over the years, these groups have had the opportunity to act with impunity.

In addition, there is no programme for the prevention of violent extremism in Georgia. The public in general does not have the opportunity to engage in the prevention of violent extremism. Given that the extremist narratives of radical groups unjustifiably increase the degree of radicalization, such an inaction is unacceptable. The spread of extremist narratives and radicalization without proper response contributes to an increase in the number of hate crimes and may become a cause of conflict.

In view of all the above, DRI calls on the Ministry of Internal Affairs to:

  • Investigate the information spread by the Marneuli and Hujabi Diocese on January 27, 2021 regarding the theft of a cross from the Gagi Fortress;
  • Take all necessary measures to gather appropriate evidence and identify the alleged hate motive, if any;
  • Analyze the activities of radical groups in the Marneuli municipality;
  • Based on the above analysis, promote the involvement of community groups in the prevention of violent extremism and radicalization.