Keeping the faith, forcefully

TBILISI, Georgia - He claims inspiration from God, but foes say the defrocked Orthodox priest is an apostle of violence.

Dressed in flowing purple robes and wearing a silver cross studded with red stones, Basil Mkalavishvili says he is merely defending the Georgian Orthodox faith of his ancestors from "Satanists."

"We are not beating anybody," he says. "There were a few times when we had to fight back."

Human rights groups here say Mkalavishvili's followers have staged scores of attacks during the past three years against Jehovah's Witnesses and members of the Assembly of God, Baptists and other non-Orthodox worshippers. Mobs have beaten worshippers, ransacked meeting halls and burned religious literature. At least 30 people have been injured in these rampages, some seriously.

Some of the assaults, witnesses say, have been committed as police stood by and Georgian television news crews taped the violence, without intervening. Mkalavishvili - known here as Father Basili - has not been convicted of any charges connected with the attacks.

He straightforwardly describes his goals. "My aim is to stop these sects from going around and knocking on people's doors and forcing them to change the Orthodox doctrines of the Georgians, which have been here for centuries," he says.

He says he respects Georgia's constitutional guarantee of religious freedom. "We don't prohibit freedom of religion," he says. "But they should not make any propaganda. They should keep to themselves."

After years of repression and subversion by Communist authorities, the dominant Orthodox churches in former Soviet states find themselves competing for believers with other faiths, from Roman Catholics to Hare Krishnas. But those emerging religions have met with the greatest antagonism in Georgia, where more than 80 percent of the population identifies itself as Orthodox.

Members of the Orthodox hierarchy have joined the criticism of other faiths. In June, Bishop Levan Pirtskhalaishvili, secretary to Patriarch Ilya II, wrote to the owner of a Tbilisi stadium warning him not to rent it to Witnesses for a meeting. The plan for the gathering, Pirtskhalaishvili warned, "arouses the just indignation of a very large portion of society." The event was canceled.

The Georgian press has widely publicized accusations by Mkalavishvili against Witnesses, whom he accuses of desecrating Orthodox churches, of being members of a suicide cult and encouraging followers to try to walk on water.

Perhaps because of these tales, many Georgians applaud Mkalavishvili's crusade. "Sects bring chaos in this country," says Zvead Dunduzashvili, 32, who sells soap and pens in a market in the city of Gori. "And all the sects pursue their own purposes and act for their personal profit."

The victims of the violence say they won't be intimidated. "It's a campaign of terror, to frighten people, so they will be afraid to engage in their ministries, to say they are Jehovah's Witnesses," says David Tolliver, an American Witness who works in Georgia.

He says he counsels Georgian Witnesses to cling to the faith's tradition of pacifism and not respond with violence. "We try very hard not to fight them," he says. "We understand that's not going to help. That's what they want. We try hard to follow what Jesus says."

The most recent violence occurred Aug. 15 in the eastern Georgian village of Otarsheni. Buses arrived in front of the Jehovah's Witnesses meeting hall around 8:30 p.m., an eyewitness said, and about 50 men piled out, some wielding truncheons.

"They thought there was a meeting there," says Shalva Mamporia, 39, a Jehovah's Witness who lived in the hall and worked as caretaker there. But the worshippers were warned there might be violence, and the meeting was canceled.

Undeterred, the mob stormed the building, smashing windows and furniture. Stacks of literature and benches were dragged into the street and set on fire. Mamporia ran. Two men chased him down, hit his head with their night sticks and kicked him in the ribs.

Several neighbors shouted encouragement to the mob. When a Witness who lives nearby appeared, his neighbors pointed him out to the rioters. He, too, was beaten.

Mkalavishvili wasn't there. But Mamporia says he recognized at least two of the attackers as "Basilists," the nickname for Mkalavishvili's followers. Police have launched an investigation, but no arrests have been made.

Human Rights Watch said in a report last year that Mkalavishvili led the "first major mob assault" on the Witnesses in Tbilisi in October 1999. Sixteen people were injured, several seriously.

Two of the victims were convicted of hooliganism.

Jehovah's Witnesses say they have documented 126 attacks on their members, most of them attributed to the Basilists. People have been beaten in meeting halls, at roadblocks thrown up to prevent gatherings and even in courtrooms by men wielding large wooden and metal crosses. The government has repeatedly promised to crack down on the violence, but little has been done, Witnesses say.

One case demonstrates their frustration. About 150 Basilists broke into a warehouse Feb. 3 and dragged out boxes of Jehovah's Witnesses literature, as well as thousands of Baptist editions of the New Testament in Georgian, Armenian and other Caucasian languages. They tossed the publications in a pile, sprayed the pile with gasoline and set it on fire.

"Yes, it happened," Mkalavishvili says. He says the Baptist Bibles were burned by accident. He says he was tipped off about the shipment of Jehovah's Witnesses literature by a Georgian customs official.

Police have restricted Mkalavishvili's movements to Tbilisi, but that has not prevented him from guiding his followers. They are preparing to disrupt two Jehovah's Witnesses gatherings outside Tbilisi this year. "I cannot leave," he said. "But many people, maybe 1,500, will go to both places."

Levan Ramishvili, director of the Liberty Institute, an American-financed civil rights organization, charges that the government has encouraged religious violence, to distract Georgians angry about corruption and the faltering economy.

"Father Basili commits all these crimes in the name of the Orthodox religion," Ramishvili says. "But this impunity makes us believe that it's not the church but our government that is encouraging him."

Mkalavishvili acknowledges that help has come from authorities. "Thank God that among our security services and policemen, there are people who are willing to help me," Mkalavishvili told the BBC last year. "They realize how dangerous it is to have these sects in Georgia."