Local authorities’ plans to restore partially destroyed building, which once was a mosque, to house a library in the village of Mokhe in Adigeni municipality met opposition from the local Muslim population, which has been trying in vain for years to reclaim this disputed building.
14 people were arrested after a confrontation with the police in this village of Samtskhe-Javakheti region on October 22 as protesters tried to prevent workers, sent by the local authorities, from launching the construction, which is scheduled to be completed in two months.
Protesters accused the police of insulting and beating up of several people, local newspaper, Samkhretis Karibche, reported on its website.
The Interior Ministry said that 11 people were arrested for petty hooliganism and disobeying police orders and three people were charged with resisting police. It also said that protesters were “insulting” policemen and some of them threw stones at police vehicles.
Representatives of the local Muslim community gathered late on Wednesday outside regional police headquarters in Akhaltsikhe, demanding release of detainees, accusing the police of provoking the incident.
Small village of Mokhe with the population of slightly over 300 people, both Muslims and Orthodox Christians, is located just few kilometers from the village of Chela, which made headlines in August, 2013 after the local authorities forcibly removed a minaret from the mosque, sparking clash between local Muslims and the police. The minaret was returned back by the authorities few days later and re-erected in November, 2013.
The disputed partially destroyed building in the village of Mokhe was a mosque before it was turned into a public building decades ago during the Soviet times. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the building fell into disrepair.
As local Muslim leaders say they have been trying in vain since 2007 to convince the authorities to hand over this building, which is now owned by the local government, to the Muslim community.
Local Orthodox Christians are against and say that as far as the local Muslim community already has an active mosque in the village, it would be fair if the disputed building is restored for public use by the both communities.
Restitution of property, confiscated during the Soviet times, remains a long-standing contentious issue for religious minority groups in Georgia, among them for Muslim community.
Akaki Matchutadze, governor of Samtskhe-Javakheti region, said on December 22 that “decision is already taken, construction of library has started and its construction will continue.”
The governor has become one of the main targets of criticism of local Muslim leaders, who have accused Matchutadze of showing disrespect towards them; they also say that governor’s heavy-handed approach towards the problem has further complicated situation.
Local Muslim leaders have also complained about the work of the State Agency for Religious Issues. Jambul Abuladze, an imam at the mosque in Chela, told Tbilisi-based Tabula TV on October 22 that he has been trying to meet head of this agency, Zaza Vashakmadze, since August to discuss the dispute in the village of Mokhe, but Vashakmadze has been “shunning the meeting.”
Late on Wednesday evening the agency, which is a consultative body for the government and the PM, released a written statement, expressing “concern” over developments in the village of Mokhe, but said that the local Muslim community “has not yet formally appealed” to the agency over the issue. The agency said it was “thoroughly” studying the problem. Some Muslim leaders from the Samtskhe-Javakheti region were in Tbilisi on October 22 to meet with representatives from the agency.
The State Agency for Religious Issues also said that the problem should be resolved “based on consensus” with the participation of all the stakeholders, whom the agency called for “maintaining calm” in order to avoid “escalation” and “damaging state interests.”