Proposed foreign agent law will harm poor children, says Caritas Georgia employee – Detroit Catholic

(OSV News) – A Catholic aid worker in Georgia told OSV News that a bill targeting non-governmental organizations and media would significantly impact the care of children and the poor in that country.

“I cannot imagine how we will stand up for the rights of children and the people,” said Tamar Sharashidze, head of the child and youth protection and development program at Caritas Georgia.

The agency – part of Caritas Internationalis, the global umbrella organization of the Catholic Church with more than 160 humanitarian organizations – is a locally registered NGO that serves as the country's largest social service provider, according to executive director Anahit Mkhoyan.

But that reach is now threatened by a renewed push to pass Georgia's proposed “Foreign Influence Transparency” law.

The bill, which was shelved in 2023 after sparking violent protests, has been dusted off and reintroduced by the leading Georgia Dream party – whose de facto leader, former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanshvili, advocated a Moscow-oriented path for the nation strives for. which gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

The text of the law requires organizations, activist groups and media outlets that receive more than 20% of their funding from abroad to register with the Georgian government as “agents of foreign influence.” After 83 members of Georgia's parliament approved it on April 17 – amid a protest brawl in the legislative chambers – the bill was read again by lawmakers.

“This means that all civil society organizations and all media sources that are not controlled by the government will be labeled as organizations that pursue the interests of a foreign power,” Sharashizde said. “The law aims to declare all our Western partners, such as the US, European donors and international organizations, as suspicious forces.”

The proposed law is similar to a law in force in Russia that heavily regulates both foreign agents and religious activities.

Caritas Georgia, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, “has many projects that serve the poor people of Georgia,” Sharashidze said, pointing out that the organization had operated for years without government support.

In 2009, Caritas Georgia “started to get some money from the state,” she said — but still not enough to operate on a large scale.

“(These) funds only cover 50% of (our) expenses,” Sharashizde said, while the rest of the agency’s budget came from “our partners in Western countries.”

Such donations are critical to the continued existence of Caritas Georgia, and any restrictions under a foreign agent law would stifle that outreach, she said.

“We have shelters for street children and small group shelters for children without parental care,” she said. “We are registered as a provider with the Department of Health and Social Care. … (But) if this law comes into effect, we will be considered foreign agents taking care of Georgian children.”

Tens of thousands of Georgians regularly flock to the streets of the Georgian capital Tbilisi to voice their opposition to the bill, which also threatens the country's path to European Union membership – and Sharashidze is among the demonstrators.

“I never remembered protests like this in Georgia,” she said. “It has never been so huge. We are a small country, but there are more than 100,000 people on the streets.”

While “all generations” take part in the demonstrations, most of the demonstrators are “young people who were born in freedom,” Sharashidze said. “You don’t know what the Soviet Union is. They want to be… living citizens of an EU member state.”

Police cracked down on the demonstrations and used “tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowd,” said Sharashidze, wearing a face mask and glasses “to avoid the gas.”

Although there have been several arrests, “now even some priests of the Orthodox and Catholic Churches … are on the side of the Georgian people in these demonstrations and openly express their opinions” given the serious implications of the bill, she said.

“This proposed law would limit the ability of civil society and media organizations to operate freely, and it could limit freedom of expression and unfairly stigmatize organizations that bring benefits to the citizens of Georgia,” Sharashidze said. “And the voice of the people is getting louder and louder. And we have hope that we will win.”