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International Baptist minister comes under fire

WASHINGTON (BP)-The president of a major European Baptist organization has come under attack from a defrocked Orthodox priest and his followers.

In a recent communication with the Baptist World Alliance, Malkhaz Songulashvilim, president of the Union of Evangelical Baptists of Georgia, quoted the following from a fundamentalist newspaper, “We can speak widely about the wicked activity of Baptist Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili. This man with his white hands, gentle beard and false intelligence is representing the greatest danger for our faith. In his books he has ruthlessly destroyed the foundations of Orthodox dogma.”

Songulashvili is under fire partly because of a letter from some United States senators to the Eduard Shjevardnadze, president of the Republic of Georgia, in which they asked the government to do more to prevent more than 700 criminal complaints and documented attacks in groups such as Jehovah Witnesses, Pentecostals and Evangelicals. The letter pointed to the warehouse owned by the Baptist Union that was burned on Feb. 3.

The senators noted while criminal proceedings against the mob that attacked Mkalavishvili has begun, the case has been repeatedly postponed because Mkalavishvili’s mob “sometimes numbering in the hundreds overrun the court.” Police do not provide adequate security, except for officials of the Ministry of Interior.

Another reason that the Baptist minister has been singled out is a complaint by a human rights group in the Republic of Georgia. In a comprehensive statement, “The Civil Society Representatives from Georgia expressed among other things deepest concern regarding the recently launched wide scale attack on democratic values and institutions which they say could lead the country to autocratic governance or bring it insurrection and violence.”

They are especially concerned that the government continues to attempt to block the draft law on freedom of speech that was already passed in the Parliament at the first hearing in 1999. They also document other instances where the government has attempted to suppress the media and other groups who speak out for freedom of speech and religious liberty.

Shevardnadze has issued a statement in the state-owned newspaper supporting recommendations by the United Nations and United States Department of States to strengthen the defense of human rights in his country. He commissioned the Minster of Justice and Interior Affairs “to take sensible actions to safeguard freedom of thought, conscience, confession and faith; to investigate and press on the courts every single act of violence against religious minorities in order to prosecute all those who are guilty and to carry out training for their staff members in the areas of human rights and especially about the unacceptability of religious intolerance.”

Faced with internal and external outrage because of the actions of this minority priest and others, Songulashvili says that he was told the priest decided to “pull down the Baptist office.” While not surprised to hear the message, the Baptist leader says he was concerned because there are three offices in Tbilisi, one at the Central Church, one at the Bible Society and one at his home.

He tried to evacuate people from these offices but several of them refused to leave. Subsequently he called upon the President and the others to use their influence to stop these attacks, but the threat continues.

“We want to continue to pray for our Christian brothers and sisters in Georgia,” said Theo Angelov, general secretary of the European Baptist Federation. “Our friends are very peaceful and are only trying to protect themselves from unnecessary persecution. We will pray for a quick end to this situation.”

The General Secretary of the Baptist World Alliance, Denton Lotz, assured Songulashvili of the continuing attention to the problem given by the BWA. “Already we had written your president,” Lotz told them, “and other authorities and we will continue to do so.”

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  • Wendy Ryan