Georgia/Russia Conflict Divides Baptists in the Region
Tuesday, September 9, 2008 12:00 am
Armed military conflict between Russia and Georgia has spilled over into a war of words between the two nations' Baptists.
Malkhaz Songulashvili, archbishop of the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia, has been outspoken about his country's sense of outrage at what has happened in the breakaway region of South Ossetia.
Songulashvili said Georgians "feel humiliated and devastated" amid reports of looting and rape by Russian troops. He described Russia's decision to send in troops as an "invasion" and said Georgia was provoked into a military response.
"Regretfully all the religious groups in Russia are lining up with the party line of the Russian authorities without leaving room for open dialogue between two countries," Songulashvili wrote in an Aug. 9 statement from London, where he is on a sabbatical research leave at Oxford.
According to the Baptist Times, an e-mail sent from the headquarters of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists derided comments by Songulashvili as "propaganda" and a "misinterpretation of historical events."
Georgian Baptist leaders called it an insult not only of the archbishop "but all of us as well."
Vitaly Vlasenko, head of external church relations for the RUECB, sought to calm the waters with a statement urging Christian believers to rise above the fray.
"During the past 15 years, the Baptists of Russia and Georgia have grown distant from one another," Vlasenko. "After centuries of harmonious relationships between our two peoples, we grieve the fact that our friendship is dying. We Baptists are becoming strangers to one another."
Vlasenko urged Baptists on both sides to be careful about making broad judgments in what has become a propaganda war.
"We believers must rise above the fray; rise above narrow, selfish political partisanship," he said. "Georgians feel invaded; Russians feel they are protecting and defending the weak and vulnerable Ossetian people. War crimes have been committed on both sides. Let us look deeper and denounce war for what it is: a satanic expression of hatred."
Both groups are expected to be represented at European Baptist Federation meetings later this month in Lisbon, Portugal, where they will engage in dialogue.
Georgia borders the Black Sea between Turkey and Russia. It was ruled by Moscow for most of the two centuries prior to the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. South Ossetia declared independence from Georgia following a civil war in 1991-1992 and was largely self-governed until Georgia sought to regain control of the area last month.
Russia said its citizens were under attack and responded with troops and bombing raids to drive Georgian forces out of South Ossetia. After a cease-fire agreement, Russia announced it was formally recognizing South Ossetia, making it unlikely the area will now agree to return to Georgia.
Baptists in the former Soviet Union have had similar differences before. Formed in 1944, the Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists has a reported 80,000 members in just more than 1,300 churches.
A schism occurred in 1961, when a separate Council of Evangelical Christians-Baptists refused to cooperate with the Communist state. Because of that, they were deemed illegal and existed underground until 1988.
Various Baptist groups have tried to find common ground in the years since the Cold War, but that consensus is said to be breaking down.
The Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia has a reported 15,000 members in 50 churches and 53 mission stations. The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Georgia has had a partnership with the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia since 2006. Recently the national CBF gave $5,000 for relief in the country of Georgia the CBF of Georgia added $2,000 in relief funds.
First Baptist Church in Columbia, Mo., has been connected with Georgia's Peace Cathedral, the country's first Baptist church, for 12 years. The Missouri church was host for an Aug. 19 ecumenical and interfaith prayer service that attracted individuals from throughout Columbia, which has a sister city relationship with a city in Georgia.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
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