Wednesday, December 1, 2004

Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili of the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia has taken an extraordinary and bold step that is reverberating round his country. It addresses a vital issue, the relations between the churches in his country threatened with division.

This article first appeared on the website: in December 2004

Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili of the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia has taken an extraordinary and bold step that is reverberating round his country. It addresses a vital issue, the relations between the churches in his country threatened with division.

On November 14 the Bishop celebrated the tenth anniversary of his ministry in the Cathedral of the Evangelical Baptist of Georgia in Tbilisi. Tribute was paid to the work of the church in becoming a bridge builder between the Georgian and Western cultures. He received many gifts, including a eucharist set, icons, pictures, cards and letters. But the most precious gifts he received that day, he told the crowd of notables attending, were two small icons (of Christ and the Incarnation) and a huge anniversary cake sent to the Cathedral from prison by a renegade Orthodox priest Basil Mkalavishvili who had been an outspoken enemy of his church for several years.

Mkalavishvili had been responsible for burning Bibles and Christian books ( including books the bishop had written), for organizing raids on religious minorities in the country, for beating up pastors and priests of non Orthodox denominations. In 2003 he had even attacked the Cathedral after which then President Shevardnadze came to the Cathedral in order to apologize for the religious violence.

This anniversary event for the Bishop was broadcast on national TV to thousands of people. As a result the Bishop received calls from Orthodox bishops and priests and ordinary people asking the same question: what does all this mean?

The Bishop has permitted me to tell the story.

He had been called to the court on November 11 to testify against Makalavishvili and nine of his followers who had been in jail since March. He spoke for three hours in the courtroom, crowded with Mkalavishvili’s supporters, about the true values of Christianity, about the ecumenical movement and the importance of religious liberty for everybody. The judge, the prosecutor, the lawyers were attentive, asking questions about differences among Christians and about the distinctive features of the Georgian Baptist Church. ‘But everybody was very nervous,’ says the Bishop. ‘They did not know what would me my concluding word.’

At the end of the speech the judge asked the Bishop, ‘What do you wish to happen to them?’ ‘I demand that these people be pardoned and released from the prison,’ he replied. Everybody was shocked by this reply. The defense lawyers could not believe their ears. ‘Do you really say that you want to forgive them everything, including the material loss?’ ‘Yes,’ he answered, saying that he desired an unconditional absolution. ‘I had to explain the nature of Christian love and forgiveness. Since the defender was not sure whether I understood his question correctly, I added: ‘I do not demand anything from them except the red wine which we will drink together when they are set free.’’

The whole courtroom dissolved in laughter. Then the Bishop, ignoring court rules, rushed to the cage where the prisoners were held and shook hands with all nine prisoners including Mkalavishvili. ‘That was one of the most moving experiences in my life,’ he says. ‘People were crying, clapping hands, weeping... When I was leaving the crowded room a small boy made his way to me through the crowd of adults. He grabbed a sleeve of my frock and told me with grateful voice: ‘Thank you Bishop!’ I turned to the child and blessed him. Later I was told that he was Mkalavishvili’s grandson.’ The same evening the Bishop received a message from the prisoners: ‘Even if we are not released from prison we will be ever grateful to you.’

What had prompted the Bishop to take this unusual approach? He had visited Mklavishvili in prison and sensed no remorse in him for his actions but ‘realized that he had an absolutely wrong image of the Christian faith’. That was why he had decided in the courtroom to ‘preach’ to him and his followers about the Christian faith by forgiving them without any preconditions. ‘This is what Christ has done for me and this is something I wanted to do for my most ardent national foe.’

It would have been unacceptable, he believes, to make Mkalashvili confess in front of the TV cameras. ‘I wanted to forgive these people without depriving them of any human dignity. I feel I had an authority to forgive them in the name of Christ. If through this act of forgiveness Christ spoke to their hearts and minds, which I believe he did, then they will certainly repent either openly or secretly before the Lord. We can be skeptical about their conversion but I am convinced of my own conversion that day. Conversion leads to a stronger belief in the power of forgiveness and reconciliation.’

Writing to his friends, the Bishop said, ‘I Hope you agree that the cake was the best gift I received that day. I do thank the Lord for all the wonders of the life and for the miracle of reconciliation. I also thank you all for all your support and prayers in those days when we were persecuted by the renegade priest who has been turned into our friend. In the past we were praying that Mkalavishvili be arrested, now we are praying that he is released from the jail.’