613: From Georgia to You: Triumph of Spirit Flows from Peaceful Activism

Family Meal in Georgia
T
his week, we’re exploring the force of faith.
    TODAY, we have a special report from the nation of Georgia by the Rev. Daniel Buttry. He is the author of “Interfaith Heroes,” Volumes 1 and 2, and he works full time as an international peace negotiator for American Baptist Churches.
    This is dramatic stuff!
    For example: The smiling bishop in the photo of a family dinner (above) in recent years intervened in what nearly was a civil war. He fearlessly climbing over the ruins of a blown-up bridge, walked past soldiers aiming their guns at him and then peacefully helped galvanize a protest that led to justice and healing.
    Afterward, the bearded cleric said modestly, “That was one of the most moving days I have ever had.”
    No kidding!
    Here is Dan’s special report, written first-hand from his own extensive grassroots work in Georgia …

Location of Georgia to Europe Asia

A HERO FOR PEACE
IN THE REVOLUTIONS TRANSFORMING
GEORGIA … AND BEYOND

By the Rev. Daniel Buttry

Georgia is in the midst of a series of nonviolent revolutions. (This is the Georgia that is the home of the brave, not home of the Braves—see the map above.) Georgian Baptists, a tiny minority among the nation’s religious groups, are playing a significant and creative role in this former Soviet Republic.
   

First there was the “Revolution of the Roses,” which took place in November, 2003. Eduard Shevardnadze, whom many in the U.S. remember as a hero in Gorbachev’s glostnost and perestroika era, proved to be an ineffective leader. He failed to rein in corruption and human rights abuses. When promised parliamentary elections were marred by “spectacular irregularities” according to international observers, opposition demonstrators took to the streets. The protests grew until demonstrators armed with roses stormed the presidential office building, leading to Shevardnadze’s resignation.
   

Baptists were active throughout the Revolution of the Roses. During the cold, drizzly days of the protests, Baptists brought hot drinks and food to the demonstrators. Baptist flags (designed with an ancient cross from monastic cave paintings in the Georgian desert) flew in Tbilisi’s Freedom Square during the demonstrations, providing the only visible religious presence in the democracy movement. When the demonstrators stormed the presidential office building, Lela Kartvelishvili, a Baptist activist from the Georgian Center for Religious Liberty, carried the Baptist flag into Shevardnadze’s office. (The photo below shows Lela, more recently, describing key sites in the Revolution of the Roses to visitors.)

Tour of Rose Revolution sites

   

Later as Baptists reflected on the revolution they spoke about a re-birth of hope among them. They had experienced a common, corporate sense of hope for the future. They could change their own reality! For the first time in their memory, people had expressed their own will politically.
    Georgians especially felt pride in the nonviolent nature of this courageous revolution.
Bishop Malkhaz overlooking Tbilisi Georgia     Malkhaz Songulashvili, Bishop for the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia (at right on a hillside overlooking Tiblisi), said, “Now we realize that we may raise our voice against injustice without violence. We experienced the power of non-violent opposition, and for the people of the Caucasus this is something entirely new.”
   

The Revolution of the Roses was just a beginning. Georgia still faced severe problems of corruption, religious intolerance from the dominant Orthodox Church, turmoil in the break-away provinces of South Ossetia, Ajaria, and Abkhazia, political and military pressure from Russia, refugees and possible terrorists coming from Chechnya, and an economy in a shambles. Such huge problems would challenge the most skilled leaders.

    Those problems almost erupted into open civil war in the spring of 2004.
   

Aslan Abashidze, a Soviet-era politician, had run the affairs of the province of Ajaria with almost total control. Ajaria is an Autonomous Republic because of the region’s predominantly Muslim population, although the residents are culturally, ethnically and linguistically Georgian. Abashidze’s rule was notorious for corruption and human rights abuses. He supported Russian policies against the Georgian national government.
    As he campaigned for president in the first election following the Revolution of the Roses, Abashidze found himself confronted by Mikhail Saakashvili—one of the leaders of the revolution who declared that Abashidze’s “dance would have to come to an end.” Saakashvili’s willingness to stand up to him ignited hope among Adjarians, and they mobilized to vote for Saakashvili.
    They organized a broad-based network, including shadow leaders ready to replace movement leaders who were arrested in Abashidze’s crackdowns. Abashidze was certain of his control, so he was shocked when the vast majority of his region voted for Saakashvili.
    Then, when Saakashvili sought to unify his fractured country, Abashidze refused to allow the President to visit his region. Abashidze had the bridges connecting Ajaria with the rest of the country blown up. Saakashvili ordered an economic blockade of Ajaria.
    They seemed on an inevitable path toward war when another people’s movement erupted. Opposition arose primarily among students and teachers in the Ajarian provincial capital of Batumi. They used the slogan “Aslan must go.” When the police painted over the slogans on walls, activists painted slogans on the streets just before rush hour to get the most visibility. They released balloons with “Aslan must go” to get caught in trees. When Abashidze declared a state of emergency and closed the universities, approximately 3,000 people protested in the streets. Abashidze’s forces met them with water cannons, iron rods and batons. More than 60 people were hospitalized, some critically.
   

More people came out to the streets of Batumi, swelling to around 15,000.

Rose Revolution

    By this time in Georgia, people had tasted the possibilities of nonviolent protest. (The photo above shows the high spirits in the crowds during the original Rose Revolution.)
    So, as the dangerous confrontation grew in Batumi, Bishop Malkhaz donned his purple clerical robes and crossed into Ajaria, climbing over the twisted girders of one of the blown-up bridges. Abashidze’s soldiers at the border threatened to shoot him, but Malkhaz said he was going to stand with the people and calmly walked through the armed guards. He went to the site of the protests and spoke to the crowds, affirming their vision of democracy and calling for disciplined nonviolence. No other clergy were visibly present in the demonstrations. It rapidly became clear that Abashidze’s support was evaporating. By the end of the day the strongman had flown to Moscow for refuge while demonstrators embraced, cheered, cried and laughed.
    “That was one of the most moving days I have ever had,” Malkhaz said.

   

Getting rid of authoritarian rulers is one thing; changing the minds and culture of people long used to dictatorship is another. Lela Kartvelishvili is concerned about the “revolution of the mind,” so she is one of the organizers of the International Foundation for Civil Education. This citizens group is working on changing the way government officials and bureaucrats think, work and relate to citizens. They are also at work seeking to train military personnel on relating appropriately to a democratic society.
    This revolution won’t be as dramatic as the Revolution of the Roses or the revolution in Ajaria, but the long-term impact could be profound.

Monument to St Nino in Georgia    

The Baptist involvement in these social and political transformations flows out of a revolution happening within the Baptist churches themselves. Baptist leaders refer to the “reforms,” a movement to contextualize the Christian gospel in their own Georgian setting and spiritual heritage.
    The gospel first came to Georgia in the fourth century when St. Nino, a young woman, began a ministry of preaching and healing. Eventually the king and queen were converted, resulting in most of the country embracing the new faith.
    Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Georgian Baptists formed their own union, the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia. They began to embrace the rich tradition of faith that could be traced through Nino and the early Christian monastic movements that created monasteries in desert caves decorated with beautiful frescoes. While retaining beliefs in believer’s baptism, autonomy of the local church, freedom of conscience and religious liberty, the Georgian Baptists sought to weave together ancient expressions of Christian faith with contemporary Georgian cultural forms.
    They celebrated with contemporary liturgical dance and ancient art taken from the monastic caves. They painted icons and introduced incense to the Eucharistic prayers. They ordained women to ministry. They launched the Order of St. Nino to minister to the poor and frail elderly. They constituted the New Desert Brothers with a spiritual discipline of an annual silent retreat of 30 days. People were drawn to the Baptist churches where a vibrant gospel was proclaimed in a Georgian cultural accent.
    On any given Sunday at the Central Baptist Church in Tbilisi, now called Peace Cathedral, the gathered congregation fills the sanctuary to overflowing, with younger people crowding at the doorways to participate in the services.
   

Part of the reforms among the Baptists has been an intentional recovery of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount to “love your enemies.” Historically Chechens have been enemies of Georgians. A few centuries ago the people of Chechnya would balance their national budget by raiding Georgia, capturing Georgians and selling them off as slaves. Many old Georgian churches have walls around them built out of fear from the northern invaders. Now the Chechen invaders from the north are refugees, fleeing the Russian Army, the brutal war in their homeland and the destruction of their capital city of Grozny. To add to the social distance between these people, the Chechens are Muslim.
    The Baptists heard Christ’s call to love these historic enemies, so they went to the mountains where the refugees were trying to survive and provided for their basic needs. For two years they labored among these forgotten people amid the rugged terrain of the Caucasus Mountains.
    One Muslim imam among the refugees said, “When I return to Grozny I will do two things. I will build a new mosque because ours was destroyed by the Russians. I will build a Baptist church because the Baptists were the only people with us in our time of need.”
    The Georgian Baptists have taken the Biblical verse from Romans 12.20 literally: “If your enemies are hungry, feed them.”

Basil Mkalavishvili    

However, sometimes the enemies are of the same faith and same nationality. Following the collapse of Communism, the Orthodox Church in Georgia has sought to recapture the place of prominence and dominance it had during the time of the Czars. Protestant expressions of Christianity have been labeled as “sects.”
    One extremist priest Father Basil Mkalavishvili (photo at right) gathered followers with a call to put down these “sects.” A number of Baptist churches were burned. Non-Orthodox pastors and priests were beaten. In February, 2002 the Bible Society warehouse, located in a Baptist facility, was torched.
Burned Bible on the altar as symbol     From the ashes of this blaze, Bishop Malkhaz placed the crumbling remains of a Bible on the altar in his home chapel (shown at left near his blue chalice). This tragic symbol will remain on the altar, he has declared, until religious liberty comes for all the people of Georgia, whatever their faith.
   

When the British Broadcasting System interviewed Metropolitan Athanasios of Rustavi, the second hierarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church, about the destruction of the Bible Society warehouse, Athanasios said as far as he was concerned it would be fine if all Baptists were dead.
    In response to this statement, Bishop Malkhaz wrote personally and publicly of his love for the Metropolitan, of their shared faith and their shared desires for the well-being of Georgia. After a few months, the Metropolitan knocked on Malkhaz’s door saying he was there to repent, ask forgiveness and do penance. His voluntary penance was to offer the Baptists gifts of food, candles, wine and vodka! (Baptists in Georgia are proud of their own wine-making as are all Georgians. Archaeologists believe that Georgia is a region where wine-grapes were first cultivated, and approximately 500 of the 1,500 varieties of wine-grapes are Georgian in origin. Almost every family makes their own wine at home. When told that some Baptists in other parts of the world would be shocked at Georgian Baptists drinking wine at every meal, one Georgian Baptist replied with similar shock: “There are Baptists who don’t drink wine?!”)

   

Then on January 24, 2003, the now defrocked Father Mkalavishivili led a group of his followers on a violent attack of a united Christian service, including Orthodox representatives, held at the Central Baptist Church to observe the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The organizers of the service told the worshipers to disperse before the service began, lessening the number of victims beaten in the attack.
    Finally, in the wake of the Rose Revolution, the renegade priest was finally arrested for his violent acts in March, 2004. Later that year, he went on trial with nine of his followers. Bishop Malkhaz was called to testify. For three hours he spoke about the values of Christianity, the ecumenical movement and religious liberty. The judge and prosecutor asked many questions about differences among Christians and about the distinctive features of the Georgian Baptist Church.
    At the end of his presentation the judge asked Malkhaz, “What do you wish for them?”
    Malkhaz replied, “I demand that these people are pardoned and released from the prison.” Everyone in court was shocked at his statement. Defense lawyers quickly asked for clarification. Malkhaz said his absolution was without condition, explaining that this was the nature of Christian love and forgiveness.
    Finally, since nobody could accept what he had said, Malkhaz added, “I do not demand anything from them except the red wine which we will drink together when they are set free.” The courtroom erupted in laughter. Malkhaz then ignored the rules of the court and walked over to the cage where the prisoners were held to shake their hands, including the hand of Father Basil.
    As he left the court a boy tugged on his sleeve and said, “Thank you, Bishop.” It was Basil’s grandson, whom Malkhaz then blessed.
    That evening he received a message from the prisoners, “Even if we are not released from here, we will be ever grateful to you.”
   

A few days later Malkhaz wrote to President Saakashvili calling for the release of those who had persecuted him and the Baptists. The next Sunday was the 10th Anniversary of Malkhaz being ordained as bishop. Among the gifts and well-wishes were two small icons of Christ and the incarnation—and a huge cake from Father Basil and his followers. Malkhaz concluded the day by declaring: “In the past we were praying that Mkalavishvili was arrested; now we are praying that he is released from jail.”
    Despite Malkhaz’s call for a pardon Father Basil Mkalavishvili was sentenced to six years in prison with his associates receiving lesser punishments.|

Ukraine Orange Revolution    

The Peace Cathedral in Tbilisi has become the main place for interfaith gathering in Georgia. When terrorist bombs exploded in London’s transportation system, an interfaith prayer service was held at the Baptist Church. Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant Christians gathered, along with Muslims and Jews. It was the only place in Tbilisi such a gathering could be envisioned as the Baptists have built relational bridges to all the religious communities in Georgia.
   

Bishop Malkhaz’s peacemaking activism has been infectious. In December, 2004 he brought two of his Orthodox friends with him to Kiev in Ukraine. Archpriest Basil Kobkhidze, Father Zaza Tevzadze and Bishop Malkhaz joined the democracy demonstrators in the Orange Revolution, flying the Georgian flag as an encouragement to the Ukrainians. (The photo at right shows the Orange Revolution at its peak.)
     As they visited various religious leaders, they were told they were the only delegation of clergy from outside to come and join them in their struggle. They were invited to participate in a prayer rally at Maidan Nezaliznosti (Freedom Square), speaking to thousands of Ukrainian demonstrators.
    The three church leaders—Orthodox and Baptist together—wrote an “Appeal to the Ukrainian People” which received widespread publicity. They wrote: “We are delighted to observe the participation of different confessions in the revolutionary events in the Ukraine. The common prayers of all the representatives of different religions, their unity, their call for nonviolent resistance, makes it clear that by faith we can do things that seem impossible. Revolutionary events in Georgia and the Ukraine prove once again that we as humans cannot accept the abuse of human dignity, lawlessness, corruption, fraud and the ignoring of the will of the people.”

   

Following the Rose Revolution and President Saakashvili’s tilt toward the United States, relations between Georgia and Russia deteriorated. They were already tense because Russian troops claiming to be peacekeepers were occupying the Georgian region of Abkhazia. During the winter of 2006-2007 Russia cut off natural gas supplies to Georgia, plunging the country into an energy crisis during the bitter cold. Many people died from exposure during the crisis.
   

Open war broke out in August 2008 over the Georgian region of South Ossetia where separatists had been engaged in a small-scale insurgency. Russian provocations and Georgian heavy-handed attacks on South Ossetian civilians spun the conflict into a short but bloody war.
    Russian troops seized control of South Ossetia, and then cut into the heart of Georgia and captured the city of Gori where Stalin was born. A cease-fire eventually led to the withdrawal of the Russians from Gori, but not from South Ossetia or some of the other land captured from Georgia. (Wikipedia has more details on the 2008 war and the map below shows some of the military activity at the time. Gori is just south of Ossetia on the map.)
Map of 2008 war
   

The war was a traumatic experience for the Georgian Baptists as it was for all the people of the region.
    When the fighting had stopped—but the Russian soldiers were still in their advanced positions—Bishop Malkhaz traveled to the war zones. He celebrated the Christian Eucharist with people in Gori and South Ossetia, bringing words of consolation and a healing presence. The Georgian Baptists created a new icon of Christ the Prince of Peace that shows Jesus standing amid the suffering of the war. (In the prayer accompanying the icon, no political sides are taken, rather the cause of those who suffer is lifted up to the mercies of God.)
    To back up their prayers for reconciliation, the Georgian Baptists reached out to Russian Baptists. The leadership from both sides met together in Kiev, Ukraine, that October and issued a joint statement condemning the war and calling for the political leaders of both nations to work for peace and reconciliation.

   

The revolutions in Georgia continue.

REMEMBER, you can read more of Daniel Buttry’s fascinating stories of real-life “Interfaith Heroes” at the Web site showcasing his two books on these themes.

   

Daniel Buttry is a Global Service Missionary for Peace and Justice with International Ministries of the American Baptist Churches. He has facilitated nonviolence trainings in Georgia and continues to work closely with the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia. His most recent trip to Georgia was in November 2009 to continue his work on respect for religious diversity and post-war trauma healing. He took some of the photographs included with today’s story, including those of Bishop Malkhaz and the bishop’s burned Bible.

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