The former Soviet Republic of Georgia is planning a new bill that will legally punish irreverence toward religion. However, concerns have been raised the 'blasphemy bill' could be used against any organization who does not follow the church's principles.
The bill has been approved by committee, and according to The Guardian, is headed for the parliamentary floor. If passed, the bill will impose a fine of 100 lari, equivalent to $120 USD, for insults to religious feeling. The penalty will then be doubled if the offense is committed a second time.
Religious minorities fear the bill may be used to guard the interests of the influential Georgian Orthodox Church. While these minorities agree that all religions should be protected by the law, they are concerned the 'blasphemy bill' will become a tool for discrimination against them.
Baptist Bishop, Rusudan Gotsiridze, said that the law would not protect anyone; at least, not the minorities, and will be a powerful tool against freedom of speech.
Georgian ombudsman Ucha Nanuashvili also criticized the law saying that "the current wording proposes the 'insult to religious feelings' as the sole criterion for limiting freedom of expression, which... subjects one individual to another's will and places the believers in a privileged position."
The draft is most likely to be passed in a parliamentary election year. On February 2, the ruling Georgian Dream Coalition endorsed the document at a human rights committee hearing which was snubbed by the minority.
The blasphemy bill has caused division both within and outside the ruling coalition. Tamar Kordzaia, a member of the Georgian Dream coalition has spoken against the bill, saying that it comes short of international human rights standards and would upset the existing balance of civil liberties.
The Georgian Orthodox Church is associated with a pro-Russian and nationalist agenda, giving them much ruling power. Members of the said church have been associated with demonstrations, sometimes violent, against religious minorities such as Jehovah's Witnesses, Jews, Pentecostals, and Muslims. Back in September 2014, local Orthodox Christians slaughtered a pig and nailed its head to the front door of a Muslim boarding school to protest its opening.
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The Kiwi Café in Tbilisi, Georgia, is a hipster enclave in the city. It's located on a rundown street at the edge of the country's capital and is known for its veggie burgers and falafel. But this weekend, the cafe became the target of an attack by extremists, who reportedly ransacked the cafe and bludgeoned its patrons with meat.
Around 15 people brandishing meat skewers showed up at the business on Sunday and began shouting at customers, throwing pieces of meat at them and into their food, according to Kiwi Café staff.
"They were wearing sausages on their necks," 20-year-old Giorgi Gegelashvili, who works at the cafe and seemed slightly traumatized by the event, told VICE. "They were yelling, 'We know your face, who know who you are.'"
Gegelashvili and other staffers told me the attackers were members of a local neo-Nazi soccer fan club who had harassed patrons of the Kiwi Café a month earlier.
According to Kiwi Café staff, as the yelling and abuse spilled into the street, over a dozen neighbors noticed the ruckus and joined in. They claim that the neighbors were yelling that the cafe's customers and staff were "punks" who were "not Georgian" and "had no respect for traditional values."
According to Kiwi Café's statement on the incident, a female cafe worker's face was shoved onto the street, while a customer's face was cut after a man hit him with a walking stick. A brawl reportedly ensued, with about four of the cafe's staff and patrons receiving some kind of injury.
"Our neighbors do not like us, maybe because we have piercings and tattoos and talk about peace," Gegelashvili told me.
Kiwi first opened in July 2015 and is run by a cooperative of vegans, most of whom sport dreads, tattoos, and piercings. The place is a symbol of counterculture, decorated with posters that say things like, "Not your mom, not your milk!" In New York or San Francisco, such an establishment would hardly cause a stir. But in a country like Georgia, it sticks out like a sore thumb.
"I do not like that Kiwi place," a small business owner on the same street as the cafe told me, although he said he knew nothing about the recent events. "They put things in their hair, their skin..."
The attack dovetails rising concerns in the country over the far right, and particularly the status of sexual minorities and immigrants. Earlier this month, a massive anti-gay conference was hosted in Tbilisi, and during Independence Day celebrations last week, hundreds of ultra-nationalists marched through Tbilisi chanting "Georgia is for the Georgians!"
Vegans and others with "alternative lifestyles" are often lumped together with gays and immigrants by the extreme right, according to Shota Kincha, a researcher at the Tbilisi-based Human Rights Education and Monitoring Center.
"Obviously, those who work or frequent [Kiwi Café] were and are identified as dubious or deviant in terms of their lifestyle and expression," Kincha told VICE.
According to Kiwi Café's statement, the chaos ended when police arrived at the scene.
It appears that police are investigating the incident. When I visited Kiwi on Tuesday, several of the cafe's staff members were meeting uniformed police officers and being driven to the police station for interviews.
No arrests have been reported so far, though Kiwi staff claim to know the identities of some of the sausage-wielding attackers.
For its part, Kiwi Café has promised to remain open "in spite of... everyday negative attitudes to us and other people who visit us." The cafe has also received support both online and offline, although that has been tempered by some anti-vegan vitriol on its Facebook page as well.
Earlier today, David Vashadze, who works as the Georgian Film Commissioner, came to Kiwi for a coffee and to show solidarity with the establishment. He was with a friend who denounced the assault as un-Georgian.
"That was very stupid," Vashadze told me, "and I'm not even vegetarian."
If your bitcoin support group meetings are light on attendees, get yourself to the former Soviet republic. Georgia's "betting its economy on luring blockchain technology," according to the NYT, with an estimated 200,000 people having set up mining computers in basements or garages. Cryptocurrency mining likely accounts for 10-15% of Georgia's total electricity demand.