Address to the Authorities of Georgia and Religious Organizations
The world is facing a global challenge today. We are all united around the common goal to combat the pandemics caused by the new virus COVID-19, and to save human lives. According to the most recent data, the number of people infected with the virus exceeded 300,000 globally; more than 13,000 people died because of the disease caused by the virus, and unfortunately, the situation is still getting worse. The World Health Organization calls on the states to take stringent measures for protecting the public health and for containing the spread of the virus. One of the most explicit requests is to observe social distancing and to restrict movements. With this purpose, the places of public gathering are closed. Suggested by the statistics, the infection and death toll is much higher in the countries which failed to introduce strict measures on social distancing on time. The COVID-19 infection rate and related risks are increasing day by day in Georgia as well.
On March 21st, Georgia introduced a state of emergency for a certain time throughout the entire country, which limits the enjoyment of constitutional rights, including the freedom of assembly.
Even before and after declaring the state of emergency, one of the key recommendations of the National Center for Disease Control and Public Health of Georgia has been to observe social distancing and to refrain from public gatherings.
It is noteworthy that some religious organizations in Georgia have already started to follow this recommendation and to limit or temporarily suspend collective liturgical services and religious rituals in various forms.
Unfortunately, the Georgian Orthodox Church has not paid adequate attention yet to these vital recommendations, although the failure to observe them pose real threat not only to their members directly, but also to the entire community. Even the children attend and participate in religious rituals, which creates special risk to the minors.
In these circumstances, the state shall assume a special responsibility in order to observe adequate balance and, on one hand, to ensure the maximum enjoyment of freedom of religion or belief, and on the other hand to apply respective legal mechanisms and to prevent the extremely high risks posed to the public health.
In regard to the above-mentioned, it should be pointed out first and foremost that based on the fundamental significance of the freedom of religion or belief, this right cannot be limited by introducing the state of emergency in the country. Despite this, performing and participating in collective religious services and rituals is not an absolute right and it can be limited, by observing strict conditions, when it poses imminent threat to public safety and health.
More specifically, the freedom of religion or belief contemporaneously and equally covers the internal (Forum Internum) and external (Forum Externum) dimensions, which means that every person is free to have (Forum Internum) and to manifest (Forum Externum) a religion or a belief of his/her preference.
However, in a democratic society based on pluralism and diversity values, in the environment of extreme necessity, it may become essential to limit some rights and freedoms in order to achieve a fair and reasonable balance between the competing interests.
Such limitations to the domain of freedom of religion or belief can be introduced only in regard to the external dimension of this right, i.e. to manifest, or act on, their religion or belief, individually or in community with others, in public or in private, through worship, teaching, practice and observance.
As for the internal dimension - the right to have, accept, change or renounce a religion or belief, is an absolute right and may not be subject to limitation of any kind. In accordance with the international human rights standards and with the Article 16 of the Constitution of Georgia, the state may impose such limitations only if they are prescribed by the law, and when they are necessary in the democratic society for ensuring the public order, and for the protection of safety, health or rights and freedoms of others. Besides, the restrictive measures and activities should meet the strict standard or proportionality.
Considering the threat presented globally and the recommendations of the World Health Organization and those of the National Center for Disease Control and Public Health of Georgia, and with the purpose of protecting the human life and health, we consider it is reasonable to apply temporary limitations to the manifestation of religion or belief, namely, to the right to perform and participate in the collective liturgical services and religious rituals.
Once again we emphasize that the freedom of religion or belief is a fundamental human right, and without their unwavering protection it is impossible for a democratic and rule-of-law state to exist. This is why the measures for limiting the right applied by the state should be in strict adherence to the Constitution of Georgia and international human rights standards.
Considering, on one hand, the Article 71 of the Constitution of Georgia stipulating that the freedom of religion or belief cannot be restricted by the state of emergency decree, and on the other hand, taking into account the current epidemic situation, it is of vital significance to observe social distancing and to limit assemblies as much as possible. Therefore, we call on the authorities of Georgia, in adherence to the Constitution of Georgia and by exercising relevant legal mechanisms with the legitimate purpose of protecting the public health, to impose temporary limitations: To perform and participate in public collective religious services for any religious organisation and for every person in Georgia.
In order to ensure that the limitations to the manifestation of religion or belief meets the respective national and international standards, the Government of Georgia shall safeguard that the adopted measures and efforts in place are envisaged by the law, serve the legitimate purposes of protecting the health of others, and meet the strict criteria of necessity and proportionality in a democratic society. To this effect:
The legislative and executive authorities of Georgia,
Pursuant to the terms and conditions stipulated in the Article 16 of the Constitution of Georgia, with the purpose of enforcing the requirements envisaged in the Article 5 of the Law of Georgia on Public Health, the authorized government agency should issue a relevant normative act to be effective within specific period;
If needed, the Parliament of Georgia should make amendments and addenda to the Law of Georgia on Public Health in a speedy manner;
In case of violating these temporary measures, to apply the sanctions envisaged in the legislation of Georgia;
Besides, it is important that the authorities make clear and consistent statements for the public about the steps taken for putting preventative measures in place.
In addition, we appeal to the state
To support and assist religious organizations, so that they can exercise their religious activities and engage with the public as effectively as possible, in the light of introduced limitations.
Besides, we appeal to the religious organizations
Considering their own high social authority and responsibility, to employ all the measures to encourage the public to support and assist the epidemiological measures carried out by the state.
Signatory NGOs and lawyers:
Tolerance and Diversity Institute (TDI)
Georgian Democracy Initiative (GDI)
Governance Monitoring Center (GMC)
Partnership for Human Rights (PHR)
Center for Constitutional Studies
Center for Participation and Development (CPD)
Human Rights Education and Monitoring Center (EMC)
Women's Initiatives Supporting Group (WISG)
Georgian Young Lawyers' Association (GYLA)
Media Development Foundation (MDF)
Civic Activism Institute (CAI)
Human Rights Center
 ICCPR General Comment No. 22: Article 18 (Freedom of Thought, Conscience or Religion). § 1.
 Article 16. Freedom of belief, religion and conscience – 2. These rights may be restricted only in accordance with law for ensuring public safety, or for protecting health or the rights of others, insofar as is necessary in a democratic society.
 paragraphs ‘a’, ‘c’ and ‘d’ of the 1st part of the Article 5: “every person on the territory of Georgia shall be obliged to: a) Restrain from carrying out activities posing the risk of spreading communicable or noncommunicable diseases, and other risks related to public health; [..] c) terminate an activity, if it poses a public health risk; d) observe sanitary and epidemiological norms;”.