This is the first of two statements by Baptist Archbishop Malkhaz Songhulashvili on phobias in the Republic of Georgia. They have just become available in English. This first respond to an event of Islamophobia in Apriland the statement that I will publish next Thursday responds to an event of homophobia. Please read them not only as event in another country’s context but as words which we can all take to heart.
On April 14, 2013 a group of drunk, armed policemen raided the Black Sea coastal village of Tsikhisdziri, which is predominantly settled by Georgian Muslims. They stopped local citizens and checked if they wore crosses on their chests; those who did not wear them were beaten and humiliated, including a villager in his late seventies. The Archbishop of the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia, who had just returned from Oxford, in the United Kingdom, published this statement on Livberali.ge and Netgazet.ge (the most popular internet magazines in Georgia). Within a week the statement was read and shared on Facebook by more than 25,000 people. Most of the comments were positive, although the Archbishop was criticised by his Christian colleagues for taking off his cross in solidarity with those Muslims who were abused for not wearing crosses. In the aftermath of this embarrassing incident, Vagif Akhperov, the Sheikh of the Georgian Muslim Council (Shia), and Mullah Iasin, the Sunni Imam of Tbilisi Mosque, were invited to attend the Maundy Thursday liturgy at the Baptist Peace Cathedral, where the Archbishop washed their feet and invited the Sheikh to deliver a sermon. It was a most moving experience to see the congregation of the Cathedral weep tears of reconciliation.
A Declaration from Archbishop Malkhaz Songhulashvili
In my homeland there are people whose dignity is degraded because they are not Christians. They are persecuted because they are Muslims, threatened with death and physically humiliated because they could not produce ‘evidence”’ (a cross) that they belonged to the religion approved by those who bullied them. Because of this we condemn the incident that took place in Tsikhisdziri on April 14. It is really a symptom of a serious sickness in our society, a sickness that has afflicted us for quite some time.
Sacking those police officers from their jobs, because people in this ‘incident’ were considered foreign, will not prove the best treatment for this sickness. I understand well that neither my own nor my religious colleagues’ proclamations can help this. What is needed is a collective effort, a demonstration of religious and political will so that this despicable phenomenon will not become our incurable disease.
What happened in Tsikhisdziri in April and what has happened since then is something all of us are guilty of, everyone, without exception.
We are guilty because we were silent while other groups were persecuted and oppressed, and when we declared our sympathy for the persecutors and not the persecuted.
We are guilty because we treated out faith like an ideology and put the Soviet ideology before it. First and foremost we betrayed our faith.
We are guilty because we valued a person not by his or her worth but rather by his or her ethno-religious affiliation.
We are guilty because we promoted using religion to differentiate ourselves from our Acharian brothers and sisters. At times we called them ‘Tatars’ and at others, such as in discussion with the Turkish government, we considered them ‘hostages’.
We are guilty because we have used the ethnic names of our fellow countrymen like swear words. When we do this we cut into the root of our country’s statehood and its future. Instead of expanding Georgia’s national narrative and treating everyone who is a child of our country fairly, and all ethnic and religious affiliations equitably, we have so narrowed this narrative that we no longer have a place for other communities or groups that are nonetheless treasures of our country. We have forgotten our blessed Rustaveil’s observation that diversity is a gift from God:
“…who created the firmament… he gave us the world with its variety of colours.”
As a Christian, I believe in renewal and redemption. I believe it is always possible for a life gone wrong to turn around. The Lenten season is just such a time for this. Perhaps we can change our perspective. Perhaps we can make room for love, forgiveness, and unconditional respect in place of hatred.
I ask for forgiveness from our Muslim brothers and sisters for the insult levelled against them in the name of Christianity. I believe in their magnanimity and I hope for their forgiveness.
As a sign of solidarity with those Muslims whose personal worth was insulted because they did not wear the cross, I refuse to wear my pectoral cross for the entire period of Lent.
At the same time, I appeal to the citizens of our country to raise their voices against the ignorance that dominates us. Perhaps the time has come for all of us to think about establishing a wide, national narrative where the value of each individual citizen of this country is unconditionally and equally protected.
The Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia, Tbilisi
(Translated from Georgian by Dr Bill Eastwood and edited by Bishop Michael Cleaves. Photoes by Nano Saralishvili and Levan Osepashvili)
Left to Right: Bishop Rusudan Georgia, Bishop Merab Gaprindashvili, Archbishop Malkhaz Songulashvili. Sheikh Vagif Akhperov, Bishop Ilia Osepashvili, Mrs Hilde Sayers.