WASHINGTON (BP)–In the Euro-Asian country of Georgia, the burning of Bibles at a Baptist warehouse in early February, led by a dissident Orthodox priest, has brought together Christians but also other religious communities in this country to fight for religious liberty, a Baptist pastor said in visiting the Baptist World Alliance in Washington.
Malkhaz Songulashvili, pastor of Central Baptist Church in Tbilisi, Georgia, and president of the Evangelical Baptist Church in the country, addressed an audience at the BWA offices Sept. 20 while in Washington for a visit at the State Department to discuss religious freedom concerns.
While the constitution of Georgia guarantees full freedom of religion, Songulashvili said, there is much opposition from the Orthodox Church.
Songulashvili explained some of the reasons why his church and the Baptists in particular have been singled out for harassment. While Christianity was introduced in 337 A.D., Baptist work begun 132 years ago is, by their religious standards, relatively new.
He also noted that Central Baptist Church has been involved in what he described as “the ills and pains of society” and in initiatives “to engage the society.” He said the congregation sees it as God’s will for the church to be part of national life. This has given it great visibility but has also caused difficulty with the Orthodox.
Before the breakup of the Soviet Union some 11 years ago, Songulashvili said, there used to be harmony, but tensions now abound.
He showed a video of the Bible burning in which defrocked Georgian Orthodox priest Basil Mkalavishvili tells a national TV audience that the Bibles and Christian literature being burned is “poisoning our nation.”
As Mkalavishvili poured kerosene on the flames, the group participating in the destruction of the Bibles chanted The Lord’s Prayer. In the background, he denounced Baptists as sectarians. “No Baptists, Jehovah Witnesses, Pentecostals. We are the true Orthodox faith,” he said.
The video also shows the priest burning a copy of the draft of a law that would give religious liberty to all; the law is still pending.
So far no arrests have been made in the Bible-burning incident and Songulashvili said there have been raids on other evangelical churches, prompted them to organize a group of men to defend against further attacks.
Baptists are accused of all kinds of things, including sacrifice of children, but the reputation of the Baptist churches is growing and the work that is done with the refugees, mentally ill and the children has all gained recognition, Songulashvili said.
He thanked the BWA for helping raise awareness when it denounced the book burning. “How can a modern state endure if it is not able to control fanatics who in the name of religion burn books and destroy churches?” asked Denton Lotz, BWA general secretary, in a letter to both the U.S. and Georgia governments on the matter.
“We need to pray,” Lotz said during Songulashvili’s visit, “that the Holy Spirit will bring Baptists together so that we can work for religious freedom in places like Georgia.”