Testimony :: Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili
Bishop - Baptist Union, Georgia
Dear Ladies and Gentlemen,
First of all let me greet all of you on behalf of the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia which is the largest Protestant Church in this Orthodox majority country. Our church was established in Georgia 135 years ago and represents today an indigenous community of 18 000 people. Local congregations and smaller groups of the denomination are spread all over the country. By culture the Georgian Baptists remain in many ways Orthodox but by the principles of faith they are Protestants. The Church has always been active in two areas of Christian ministry. On one hand they are committed to evangelism and education, and on the other hand they are deeply involved in social activities for the benefit of the poor and destitute, internally displaced people, refugees, handicapped children, single mothers and street Children.
For 135 years the church suffered a lot of persecution, discrimination, physical and moral harassment. 75 years of communist regime were particularly difficult. In the beginning of the Soviet regime most of the male leadership of the Church became martyrs or were exiled to the Siberia. Due to the faithfulness of the women the church continued to exist and grow. By the end of the Soviet period the Church gained considerable strength.
During the communist time the official dialogue between the Orthodox and Evangelical Baptist churches was initiated. Friendship between the two churches developed to such an extent that there were regular pulpit exchanges between them. Baptist leaders regularly preached at the main Orthodox cathedral in Tbilisi. A Baptist choir regularly sung during the Sunday liturgies. All of this now seems absolutely incredible. With the rise of nationalism a lot of things have changed.
It is already 10 years since Georgia has reemerged as an independent nation. We gained independence but we still have not reached freedom. Old values have gone. New values have not come yet. There will be a very long way to go before we fully appreciate the values of democracy and freedom, basic human rights and a general sense for dignity of the human being.
The question of religious liberty has become a matter of political manipulations. It seems that most of the political parties have come to realize that a pro-Orthodox policy can be very beneficial in their pre-election campaign. On the other hand ultra fundamentalist Orthodox groups are taking their opportunity to increase their war against religious minorities.
I have been invited here to bring some clarity about religious violence in Georgia, to answer some questions. But I am afraid I have more questions than answers myself.
I do not understand why the fierce religious intolerance crept into the country of Georgia where religious intolerance was not a big issue in the past. (In fact religious tolerance used to be a matter of national pride. Here I can remember a song which used to be very popular during the eighties: “It does not matter where you pray, just be a gentleman”).
I do not understand why the Orthodox church and Orthodox believers do not clearly and boldly condemn when sacrilegious actions are carried out in the name of Orthodoxy, when the heads of non Orthodox people are shaved in the name of the Most Holy Trinity, in order to humiliate them, when Bibles and other Christian books are burnt publicly with wild joy, when Catholic, Evangelical Baptist and non Christian clergy are attacked physically and are publicly maltreated.
I do not understand why the police are almost completely inactive when people are beaten up for their religious belief, when people’s properties are violated and belongings stolen just because they belong to a non Orthodox church or religious group. Very often they say since there is no law about religion we cannot do anything about religious violence. What a silly explanation. It is not an absence of religious legislation which causes religious violence and persecution but rather absence of culture, justice and general law.
I do not understand why authorities do nothing to put an end to the violence.
The Georgian constitution does make provision for freedom of conscience and belief.
Why is the constitution violated by the authorities? Why are the presidential decrees not implemented? Why do not authorities realize that sidelining of religious minorities is not contributing to the integrity and unity of the country which is not homogeneous neither ethnically nor religiously?
I do not understand why the Georgian mass media is so reluctant to contribute to the peace and harmony in the society. Why are the criminals, who are spreading moral terror in the society, given so much time on TV to propagate their obscurant ideas and to stir people up against religious minorities? The same mass media is very reluctant to pay any attention to what is happening in different religious communities. Why do the positive things in the life of religious minorities have no value for them to be reported? For instance, just recently on September 11th, we celebrated a tremendous memorial service at Central Baptist Church to mark the first anniversary of the world’s most dreadful tragedy. The service was carried out with the participation of Christians (Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran, Armenian Apostolic, Baptist), Muslim and Jewish leaders. That was the first occasion when all the religions prayed for peace and reconciliation. Most of Georgian TV channels rigidly refused to film the service. But the same day they gave enough time to speak and show how the day was observed in the rest of the world. This is just a very small example.
Obviously there are far more things that I do not understand but there is one thing that I understand very well: it should not continue this way.
We have to deal very strictly with every single expression of terrorism everywhere and by all means. It is clear that religious or moral terrorism is one of the ugliest faces of world terrorism. Unfortunately it is not endemic for Georgia. It is everywhere, in every religion, in every culture. I as a Baptist clergyman declare that religious persecution and discrimination which is carried out in the name of Orthodoxy has nothing to do with the true Orthodoxy which is a part of the worldwide body of Christ. My experience with street children tells me that it is easier to take children from the street but it is much more difficult to take the street attitudes out of children. Similarly our society has come out of communist regime but the old mentality has not come out of our minds.
We as Georgian Christians (here I represent a group of Churches of which the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia is a part along with Lutheran, Armenian Apostolic and Roman Catholic churches) are determined to fight back the religious and moral terror in Georgia. Obviously our means are limited but our desire to see Georgia prospering both spiritually and materially will help us to overcome all those difficulties we face now.
There are four targets of strategic significance which could be efficient in fighting against religious terrorism:
1. Family. Understandably it is the hardest job to influence the post communist family to such an extent that it nurtures its members with the ideas of tolerance, human rights and democracy. Nevertheless if we are serious to develop an open society we should target the family. Obviously Mass media, school and religion should be considered as means to reach the above-mentioned results in the family. It will certainly take some time before first positive fruits appear.
2. Mass media. The fastest way of changing the public opinion in relation with religious tolerance could be reached through the mass media. But the mass media is not ready to play such a role. Simply because their representatives belong to the same society. Considerable work is to be done in order to involve them in the work against any expression of religious terrorism.
3. School and Teaching institution. Very often schools play a very negative role. Sometimes some schoolteachers think that the communist ideology has been replaced by Orthodoxy therefore the think they should impose the Orthodox faith and religious intolerance over the children. The Ministry of Education and schools should prepare curriculum in such a way that both pupils and teachers learn how to respect religious diversity in the society.
4. Religious congregations. We may call it the center of moral influence. Religious leaders should help their constituencies to realize that in this postmodern world it is impossible to live with medieval principles. It may seem easiest to prosecute the clergy that have been responsible for the violence in Georgia but this will not solve all the problems. They will be considered as martyrs for the Orthodox faith. If we seek for lasting results for religious tolerance we should work with theological students and their teachers. They should be exposed to reality. They have to be encouraged to learn modern languages since the only source of their theological education very often is the 19th century ultra fundamentalist literature in Russian.
Without diligent work on these four targets it will be very difficult to fight not only religious terrorism but terrorism in general. The process of globalization in this respect can be the ally for fighting terrorism globally. This is to say that the problem of religious persecution and terrorism in Georgia should be considered as a part of global issues. I believe that with common efforts of all people of good will we can handle the problem. Peaceful development of every nation of the world with due respect of religious liberty should not have any alternative. Let me conclude this speech with the words of an English mystic, Julian of Norwich: “All shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well”. Our optimism for the better future should not be overshadowed by the turmoil of the present time.