Europe Council backs Georgia Jehovah Witnesses

TBILISI, July 6 (Reuters) - The head of the Council of Europe on Friday said Jehovah's Witnesses in Georgia who complain of persecution at the hands of Orthodox extremists must be better protected.

Georgian police have been accused of turning a blind eye to attacks on Jehovah's Witnesses in the overwhelmingly Orthodox former Soviet republic.

"Jehovah's Witnesses deserve the same protection of their personal physical integrity as everyone else in Georgia," the council's Secretary-General Walter Schwimmer told reporters at the end of a two-day visit to Georgia.

"It must be made very clear to the police that they are obliged to protect them when they are under attack."

Jehovah's Witnesses say they have been attacked on more than 77 occasions in the last 18 months, sometimes by men armed with nail-studded clubs.

On Thursday, a London-based spokesman for the faith said Georgian prosecutors had failed to act on more than 300 complaints filed by Jehovah's Witnesses, and followers had taken their case to the European Court of Human Rights.

The Strasbourg-based court falls under the auspices of the Council of Europe, a 43-member pan-European rights watchdog.

Schwimmer said the council had offered its assistance in the drafting of an agreement between Georgia's powerful Orthodox church and the state. He warned that the creation of any "state church" would violate the rights of Georgians to freedom of religion.