Perhaps a longer post than many I share, I want to commend reading this (already abridged) open journal sent to friends and colleagues by Malkhaz Songulashvili, an Archbishop in the Baptist Church in Georgia and a spokesperson for peace and for Interfaith relations around the world. He has been studying in Oxford, England and will be returning to the Republic of Georgia soon. Please share his theological reflection, his humor, his prayers for friends in Syria, his longing for and commitment to relationships between Christians and Muslims. The opening days of your 2013 will be enriched by reading.
The last two days of the year 2012: Bracing for the year 2013
It is raining cats and dogs. Ala and I have a houseguest, Kyrion, a fellow Georgian from Tbilisi, where he served Patriarch Ilia II as a hypo-deacon for more than 20 years. Now he is an Archimandrite of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate. He is in his early forties. He is a very amusing and kind character. He is a monk, which means being totally withdrawn from worldly pleasures. Yet his main hobby is shopping…. and he dines on coffee, cigarettes and Black Label whisky. He has become part of our family. With him, and a Saudi friend of ours, we attended the other day a Christmas carol service at Christ Church Cathedral. We arrived late. Even though we had tickets, all the places were already taken. I looked around to find places for Ala, Kyrion and our Saudi friend. It was not easy. The service was about to start. With the help of sidesmen I managed to find three places but I could not find a place for myself. There were no more seats available. I was about to give up when the chief verger appeared in front of me and whispered in my ear:
“The Dean wants you to process with the bishop and clergy, if you do not mind.”
Of course I did not. Now I could have a seat with the clergy! The service of Nine Lessons and Carols was absolutely beautiful. This year the choir sang rather unusual modern carols which added a touch of post-modernity to the service. After the service all four of us were invited to a reception by the Dean and his wife, who have recently visited Georgia and enjoyed the hospitality of a small Baptist Church in the city of Gori.
Kyrion did not come for Christmas-night mass. He though it would be too much religion for a day. Ala and I went to the midnight service with our ecumenical friends, an Imam, his Unitarian wife, Dr., an Orthodox Scholar Dr. and his Charismatic Christian wife. After the midnight service the Imam and his wife came to our place for drinks and we spent the rest of the night discussing religion, politics, culture and human relationships. It was a remarkable Christmas night.
Today I do not mind rainy weather at all. I quite like walking in the narrow mediaeval streets of Oxford when it rains. Kyrion and I browse around the city centre. When we return it’s already dark. Ala is curled up in her bed and is dozing. Kyrion politely pushes me out of the little kitchen we have and starts cooking.
While he cooks I decide to answer some e-mails. I open the inbox and find a letter from Syria. I had not heard from my Syrian friend for several weeks and I was concerned about him. I felt helpless. I started telling all my They live in the besieged city of Aleppo, where the situation has gone from bad to worst: shooting, killing, bombing, the cold, blackouts.
“Perhaps their electricity is cut off and this is the reason my friend cannot reply to my e-mails,” I kept telling Ala. But at the bottom of my heart I also thought of all kinds of bad scenarios. My friend is a Christian and to be Christian in the besieged city of Aleppo is not the safest thing in the world.
I met George in Aleppo on my way to Beirut several years ago. There was a European Baptist meeting in Lebanon and the cheapest way to get there was to travel via Aleppo. My Lebanese Baptist colleagues had closely monitored my journey. They were a little bit nervous about my visit because of my appearance: a long-bearded, frocked, Georgian Baptist clergyman. They thought it would be a recipe for being identified with religious extremists of whom the Syrian and Lebanese authorities seemed to be very suspicious. I received a call from Beirut.
“Please do not wear clerical robes, do not bring religious literature with you…’ said my colleague; and then, after a short pause added ‘Can you shave off your beard, please?! This will make your life and our life much easier.”
I thanked him for his advice and assured him that I would be sensible about coming to Beirut safely. Of course I did not shave off the beard. I did not follow his counsel either. In fact I did everything the other way round. It was the evening when my plane landed in the historic city of Aleppo. A severe-looking border control officer first looked at my passport and then asked with a beaming smile on his face:
“Baba?” (Father in Arabic).
“Yes, I am,” I answered.
“Patricha?” (Patriarch) he asked again.
“Yes, you can call me Patriarch.” I smiled back at him.
“Welcome to Syria,” the officer said proudly, and handed the passport back to me.
Since that time George and I have kept in touch with each other. Recent developments in Syria have brought the two of us even closer. It is beyond our imagination to understand what is going on in Syria. It is like some form of endless suffering, and an unsolvable puzzle. The letter was to cast some light on my friend’s situation.
“Dear Malkhaz,” my friend wrote, “We really need people praying for us at this time. We are happy to be together as a family. This is a precious gift from God. A couple of months back I and a colleague were kidnapped and held for two weeks. God set us free and it was wonderful to hear how family, colleagues and friends were all united in their efforts to set us free. This is something that I will never forget.”
Aleppo is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. In the course of its rich history the city was attacked and captured by enemies at numerous times. When I saw my friends several years ago they could not possibly imagine that they would experience yet another siege in their lifetime.
Life in Aleppo continues. Life there is far from being normal, yet the people of Aleppo do not give up. My friend proudly tells me that his ten year-old son finished this term at school ‘with excellent results while Aleppo is under siege.’
I am woken up in the morning by an unusual tapping on the skylight of my bedroom, which is located right over my bed. When there is clear sky I talk to the stars and the moon before going to sleep (I should have told you that I live in the attic flat of a very old house in Oxford city centre, next to the oldest building in the city – the 10th-century Saxon Tower. No, it is not raining, it’s hailing, for a change. I get out of my bed and leave the flat as silently as possible. I walk in the dimly-lit old streets of the city under heavy rain but I do not mind; as I told you, I like rain. My umbrella does not necessarily keep me dry, nor do my sandals. Within an hour I am almost completely soaked. I hear bells tolling from the Saxon Tower and I go back to Cornmarket Street. I am at St. Michael’s at the North Gate for the 8 o’clock eucharist. There are only three of us in the church – the priest, Gregory Platten, a sidesman and me. I like St Michael’s church and always attend the 8 o’clock eucharist. It’s a very prayerful place with eye-catching altar frontals and a lovely blue carpet in the sanctuary, woven somewhere in Turkey.
After the service I go back to my flat quietly and slip back into my bed. I go back to sleep. When I wake up, I hear the Archimandrite chanting the Byzantine liturgy under the shower… this is how he starts the day, after having taken a cup of coffee and a cigarette or two.
“Good morning, ‘surfazan’ (Armenian for ‘my lord bishop’), says the Archimandrite sipping his cup of coffee. ‘What are you plans for today?’
“Ala and I are going to London; would you like to come with us?”, I answered him.
“What is going on in London?” Kyrion looks at me curiously.
“Well,” I started slowly, “we have been invited by a group of young Muslims there, and they are starting something very new and exciting. There will be prayer and then dinner at a Lebanese restaurant.”
“No, no I will not come,” replied Kyrion immediately. “I am a friend of Israel, and I will not come. I have been in a Mosque twice in my life, I think, and that is enough. If it was a synagogue I would have come. “
“You can come with me to the local synagogue next week but it will not harm if you come to meet the Muslims as well.” I tried again but did not succeed. His sharp reaction reminded me once again that the world we live in is still full of suspicion of Muslims.
A good friend of mine, an Anglican priest, who has founded an organization called the Soul of Europe, once eloquently told me that, what the Jews were in Mediaeval Europe, is what Muslims are in contemporary Europe. This is a sad reality of our time – the bridge has been broken between Christians and Muslims and it will take a lot of effort and energy to restore it.
Of course there are a lot of meetings, dialogues and talks among the leaders and clergy of the three monotheistic religions of Europe, but sadly all these talks rarely make any impact on the grass-roots where life happens – where people suffer because of lack of clarity, mutual understanding, humility and prophetic guidance. This is why it is so important that Christians and Muslims meet at every possible level of human relationships. This was the reason why we wanted to go to London.
I called a young Muslim scholar, Mir Faizal, in Oxford, who was also going to attend the event The three of us, Ala, Faithal and I, did not waste our time on the bus. We discussed a lot of theological matters from both traditions. Faithal is a very good mathematician and an Islamic scholar. It was sheer joy to discuss various aspects of each others’ respective theologies on our way to London. In the middle of our conversation Faithal declared:
“I find Jesus more relevant to Muslim life and practice that anybody else!”
“What do you mean by that?” asked Ala, who could not hide her amazement.
“In Mohamed’s time the prophet was addressing religious issues that are very different from that of today. He was addressing a community, which did not have a strong concept of one God. Jesus, on the other hand, was addressing issues of the religious fundamentalism of his time. And this is what is relevant for us as Muslims!”
“You are right, this is very true. Jesus addressed the issues of legalism, ritualism and hypocrisy. These issues are relevant not only for Muslims but for the majority of Christian communities as well,” I suggested.
“That may be true, but we need Jesus more then you Christians do!” insisted Dr Mir.
By the time we got to the Lebanese restaurant near Marble Arch, the participants in the event were ordering their meals and we easily joined up with the group. Since everybody was late they had decided to have the meal first and then hold a prayer-service in one of the rooms of the restaurant. The participants were mainly young professionals. There was also one mother with a young boy. It was absolutely amazing to listen to the stories of their faith-journeys. Among them there were people with Saudi Arabian, Pakistani, Indian and even Chechnian background. I could not help noticing that all of them had come from very conservative and exclusivist backgrounds, but they realized that God’s way is to be inclusive, rather than exclusive, in the community of believers. The Inclusive Mosque Initiative is the only spiritual home where they are welcomed and accepted.
After the dinner we were directed to a room downstairs where the prayer was to be held. We waited and waited but nothing happened. Nobody opened the door. The manager of the restaurant, a Muslim, came to apologize that the room was not available! The congregants did not know what to do. Some suggested that the prayer should be postponed to another occasion to find a place where they could pray properly. On Edgware Road there are a lot of mosques but those mosques do not allow women and men to pray together. Some of them never encourage women to come to the mosque because a woman’s place, in their view, is not in the house of God but in the kitchen. The people of the Inclusive Mosque Initiative consider this absolutely unacceptable.
A Chechen young man, Hassan, and I suggested that we should not go home without offering a congregational prayer.
“Shall we go to one of the mosques here?”, asked somebody.
“No, we cannot go there because they will not allow us to pray together!”answered another.
“They will not allow a woman to lead the prayer either,” somebody else clarified.
“Why don’t we pray right here in front of the restaurant?” suggested Hassan.
Some of the people thought it was too provocative to offer prayer in front of the restaurant, outside of which a lot of people sat comfortably and smoked shisha. Some people said farewell and left; seven of us stayed. We found a place off the Edgware Road in front of a large and posh block of flats. In no time the direction of the Qibla was identified and prayer mats produced from bags. It was a dark and windy evening.
Halima, a lovely young girl, was asked to lead the prayer. Dr. Mir Faizal offered a call to prayer. Halima reverently took the imam’s place and led all of us in prayer. She was chanting beautifully. After my exercises in Arabic prayer I now felt comfortable with the language. There was something absolutely surreal and intrinsically beautiful about that prayer. A bunch of Christians and Muslims, men and women, old and young all prayed on the tarmac in front of a posh London house. It was cold and damp; the wind was blowing my beard over my shoulder. There was something hilarious about this prayer. The house had motion-sensitive lights affixed to the first floor of the building and therefore every time we knelt and prostrated ourselves, the lights went off, and every time we stood up they went on. It appeared as if we had the lighting arrangements in tune with the prayer.
As we walked to Marble Arch I told Halima that there was something very Christmassy about this prayer.
“How do you mean?”, she asked.
“When Jesus was born there was no room for him in decent accommodation so he was born in a stable. Similarly the IMI is being born now and there is no room for it. “
“That’s a lovely thought,” said Halima and invited all of us to have some shisha together. That was first time Ala and I tried shisha. Next day I received a message from her saying: “Dear Archbishop, ‘Thank you for joining us yesterday. We thoroughly enjoyed your company and your support and very much appreciated.”
I am going to miss all my friends in England when I am back in Georgia. I have been so much enriched by these friendships with Anglicans, Baptists, Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Jews, Buddhists and, last but not least, with Muslims of various traditions: Sunnis, Shias, Sufis, Ahmadias.
Malkhaz Songulashvili, 1 January 2013, Oxford, UK.