By Virginia Holmstrom. This is the second in a series of posts about the Republic of Georgia.
In January 2013, I traveled with ABCUSA General Secretary A. Roy Medley and 10 American Baptist women to the Republic of Georgia to experience the Georgian Baptists’ witness upholding religious liberty for all peoples. Baptists, comprising about 1 percent of Georgia’s population, are a religious minority that endures discrimination from this Eastern Orthodox nationalistic country. Those who practice Judiasm and Islam in the Republic of Georgia also face discrimination as do other minority faith populations. It is the Baptist church leaders that have spoken out publicly and prophetically about injustice, reminding Georgian leaders that the nation’s constitution ensures religious liberty for all. In January 2013, our Georgian Baptist hosts drove us to Batumi, a thriving port city of 150,000 persons, just north of the Georgia-Turkey border on the coast of the Black Sea. About 60 percent of the Batumi residents are Georgian Muslims, according to one leader of the Muslim Union there. Yet there is only one mosque in Batumi, far insufficient for the Muslim population there. Batumi is home to a dozen or more Orthodox churches that receive huge amounts of funding from the Georgian government.
Rev. Carol McVetty, pastor of Northshore Baptist Church, Chicago, Illinois, participated in the January 2013 visit of American Baptists to Georgia, and she later recounted our group’s agenda in Batumi: “We were the guests overnight in Georgian Muslim homes and prayed with the community in their brightly painted little mosque. We 11 American Baptist women were brought along as the Georgian leaders, Muslim and Baptist, met with the provincial president to pressure him to give permission for the construction of much-needed additional mosques. While we felt out-of-place, we were assured [by Georgian Baptist and Muslim leaders] that the presence of western witnesses added considerable weight to the petition of these disenfranchised minority groups. The next day the local newspaper carried the headline, ‘Baptists Demand Land to Build Mosque’! Several weeks after our return home, we received news from Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili of the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia, who had helped to initiate the meeting with the government and invited our participation: ‘You will be delighted to know that yesterday the Georgian authorities made a decision to let Muslims build a mosque in Batumi. This is a tangible result of your visit to Georgia.’”
This year as I returned to the Republic of Georgia to embark on a spiritual pilgrimage in June 2014, bringing with me five American Baptist women traveling to Georgia for the first time, I was looking forward to seeing the construction progress on the new mosque in Batumi, and perhaps even entering the finished mosque to admire its beautiful worship setting! Again, as in January 2013, our Georgian Baptist hosts accompanied us to Batumi, this time by train. Again, we were invited by Muslim families to be guests in their homes for overnight stays. We met face to face at the Islamic Center in Batumi for conversation and friendship with Muslim women and college-age young women studying at the university in Batumi. It was around this table that I asked about the progress on the new mosque…and it was then that I learned that no progress had been made because the regional government had not yet identified acceptable land on which a mosque could be built. Time and again, requests by the Muslim community for potential sites had been countered by manipulation by Orthodox leaders that included “overnight constructions” of an Orthodox cross on a particular requested plot of land, and even the slaughter of a pig on the land to assure that the potential site would be deemed unclean for the construction of a mosque.
The Muslim community in Batumi is reacting as best they can. The worshipers coming to the one and only mosque in Batumi for Friday prayers number 3,000 men (the women are asked to pray at home because there is simply no room at the mosque). Three thousand is far more people than the mosque will hold, and so the side streets around the mosque are prepared for the prayer rituals of the overflow crowds. I was shown photographs of hundreds of Muslims kneeling in the streets to pray in the pouring rain, with tarps strung up across the streets to lessen their discomfort as local Muslims–in faithfulness and obedience to God–prostrated themselves on the wet and muddy ground to pray.
When I asked what we as American Baptist women could do to help right this grievous injustice, I was encouraged by the Muslim community to talk about it when I returned to the U.S. Thus with this blog post, I begin to tell their story, sharing first with my Baptist community what religious intolerance looks like in Batumi, Georgia. I appeal to you to speak out on every occasion about the Baptist beliefs we hold so dear: religious liberty and the separation of church and state. We American Baptists were once-upon-a time an intolerable lot, ourselves. When Baptists began populating colonial America, Baptists were a persecuted people. Our history is filled with stories of Baptists who were flogged and imprisoned because of their faith. Today in America, we are protected by the freedom of religion and the separation of church and state. Baptists worship freely in America. I assure you it is not so for Baptists and peoples of faith in some places in our world today. If you value Baptist principles as I do, will you strengthen my voice by advocating for religious freedom for all of God’s people everywhere?