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Georgian monasteries offer to take in prisoners

By Tom Esslemont
BBC News, Tbilisi

A church in the Georgian capital Tbilisi, February 2010
The Orthodox Church in Georgia has a strong following

Officials in the ex-Soviet republic of Georgia have announced a scheme to let prisoners shorten their jail terms by spending time in a monastery instead.

The scheme for petty criminals has been proposed by the country's Orthodox Church and government officials.

It comes as prisoner numbers in Georgia continue to rise and so too does the popularity of the Church.

It is unclear how many prisoners will be allowed to become monks or if they have any choice in the matter.

Overcrowding

To say that the Orthodox Church plays an important and influential role in Georgia is an understatement.

Some 80% of its population are said to be Orthodox Christians and its leaders have at times played a part in politics.

Now the Church has gone a step further by directly offering to help reform certain criminals by handing them a cassock and allowing them to serve out their sentence as monks.

In a joint statement, officials from the prisons ministry and the Church said they would work together to select the convicts they thought would benefit most from spending time in a monastery.

They said the purpose was to liberalise the criminal justice system, but the reality is that prisoner numbers are rising fast in Georgia.

A report last year by a penal reform organisation said the incarceration rate had risen by 300% since 2004 and that jails were badly overcrowded.

A senior cleric told the BBC he believed the Church played a positive role in society and that the scheme could work.



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