The journey to Batumi was long. It took us about five hours. But it did not take as long as it used to before the motorway was constructed and roads re-done. I can remember that in early 1990s it took almost twelve (?) hours to get to Batumi. Why did we have to go to Batumi? There were two reasons.
Batumi is the capital city of the Autonomous Republic of Ajara. This part of Georgia used to be a part of the Ottoman Empire for three hundred years, and the majority of the population adopted the Muslim faith. Since the independence of Georgia the Muslims in the republic have experienced the imposition of the Orthodox Christian faith. Social and religious coercion have been used for the mission among Muslims. Reportedly churches and theological seminaries have been built in the villages and towns were there were no Orthodox Christians. Those who convert to Orthodox Christianity can count on various social and political benefits. The Prime Minister of the country, Zurab Zhvania, encouraged and attended mass baptisms organized by the local Orthodox clergy. Understandably this created tension between the Orthodox and Muslim populations of the country. Recently Ajarian eco-migrants were forbidden to pray together on Fridays in a house set aside for worship.
“We are Christians, and we do not want Muslims to worship in our village,” shouted a woman in video footage on the confrontation between the two communities.
“We have children to bring up in this village!” shouted another woman, as if the well-being of the children would be threatened if Muslims prayed in their prayer house on Friday!
We wanted to meet the Muslim leaders in the region and find out what was going on there.
It was late afternoon when we arrived in Batumi. The city is located in a bay in the foot hills of beautiful mountains. When we drew nearer to the city I could not recognize its skyline. So much has been done since I saw it in 2006. Saakashvili’s government invested a lot of energy and resources in the city. It looks like a little Las Vegas – lots of new hotels, skyscrapers, casinos and restaurants. Reportedly the city attracts a lot of tourists from Caucasian countries, Azerbaijan and Armenia, Europe, Turkey, Iran, and even Israel.
All of us were welcomed by the Georgian Muslim Union leadership in front of the Radisson Hotel. But we did not stay at the hotel. We decided to express Christian solidarity with the Muslims of Ajara by staying in their homes. After dinner we were invited to the mosque, where we were warmly welcomed again. A short welcome speech was given from the ‘mihrab’ – a semicircular niche in the wall of a mosque that indicates the qibla, that is, the direction of the Kaaba – by the chairman of the Muslim Union, Zurab Tsetskhlaze. He used to be the Mufti of Ajara but decided to resign the post and devote his life to religious education. At the end of the meeting all of us – two British, 12 American and 9 Georgian Christians – were kindly invited to offer prayers in accordance with our tradition. I suggested the Christians spend some time in silent meditation and then asked Stephen and Roy to offer short prayers. We all sat quietly in the mosque and prayed for the healing of the wounds of history, for peace and for reconciliation.
After prayer in the courtyard of the mosque we were met by a group of Muslim hosts who took the Christian guests to their homes two by two. One elderly man was particularly keen to invite Roy Medley to his place, but Roy had already been assigned to another family.
Stephen, Charles and I were invited to Zurab Tsetskhladze’s place. We were warmly welcomed by two children, Rashid and Rishad, who were in their early teens. A little table was laid with traditional Ajarian sweets and dry fruit. We had a long and lovely conversation over a cup of tea. As we discovered, Zurab was educated in Istanbul, Turkey. He came back to Batumi to become the Mufti of Ajara but then decided that it would be better to give all his energy to the education of the people. The Georgian Muslim Union headquarters is a place for learning and education. The place is very small but they manage to have seminars for different levels of Muslim society every day. He also told us that in Batumi, a city of 150,000 people, there is only one mosque, which is not enough for the number of faithful who need to carry out their religious duty by praying on Fridays in a mosque. We learned that the authorities will not allow them to build another mosque, while the Orthodox Church has built a couple of dozen churches in the city, and a number of properties have been given to it free of charge. Understandably Muslims feel discriminated against unfairly, and their religious feelings are hurt by Christians. With the direction of the Orthodox Church, crosses are being erected at virtually every street corner in the city to tell Muslims that this is not their city. During the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008 Georgian Muslims fought bravely for the freedom of Georgia. A lot of them fell on the battlefield. The Muslims of Ajara were particularly hurt when the authorities erected crosses on the graves of the dead Muslim soldiers. The Orthodox Church made the Georgian Muslims hate the cross. I was sitting there in the home of a leader of the Muslim community in Georgia, and translating the sad narratives of religious oppression and humiliation of Muslims by Christians. I felt sick with embarrassment.
“Poor Jesus,” I thought, “we failed to understand his gospel of non-violence and acceptance! What we hear seems so similar to mediaeval suppression, yet it is happening here and now.”
Bishop Stephen and Charles also looked sad to hear all the stories of religious coercion and oppression. John Locke, a famous Oxford man and thinker wrote as early as in the 17th century that lack of religious toleration can be unchristian, citing the example of the Prince of Peace, Jesus, who did not resort to violence and coercion against those who did not follow him. According to him, ‘if the gospel and the apostles may be believed, no man can be a Christian without charity, and without that faith which works, not by force, but by love.” Following Locke’s logic we can see the structure of his argument: no-one can be a Christian unless they are charitable. Religious persecutors are not charitable, therefore religious persecutors are not true Christians. Locke hinted strongly at the hypocrisy of religious persecutors: they do not practice what they preach. Obviously, what Locke said of Christians, the same is applicable to any religion, because any religion by its nature is meant to help people to live in peace and harmony with fellow human beings. Sadly, we still need to learn how to live peacefully, not only in Ajara but everywhere.
In the conversation with Zurab all three of us were amazed at his progressive ideas. He seemed to be more pro-Western than any Christian clergymen I have ever met in Georgia.
“Do you mind that the city of Batumi has become like a little Las Vegas, with a lots of casinos and other establishments that may not be acceptable to your faith?”, asked Charles in the conversation with Zurab.
“I do not think that banning things is helpful. The casinos here are full of people from Muslim countries where gambling is strictly forbidden. Coercion never works. Human beings should be granted freedom,” answered Zurab. All of us were surprised by his answer. You do not expect such a reply from a Muslim cleric.
* * *
Zurab lives in a relatively small but well-taken-care-of flat. It was very generous of him to invite us to his place. It was rather late when we decided to go to bed.
“The Bishop and Charles will sleep in this room, right next to the sitting room,” said Zurab in a rather serious voice. “You are one of us and therefore I will ask you to sleep on the sofa.” I was very happy to sleep on the sofa. The room was warm and nice but when I told Stephen and Charles about the host’s decision about our sleeping arrangements, Charles protested vigorously.
“By no means. The bishop and archbishop should sleep in the room and I will sleep on the sofa! You have a very difficult day tomorrow you need to be refreshed and fit for it.”
“No, Charles, I will be happy in the sitting room. I am an archaeologist by trade and I am used to sleeping anywhere.” I tried to convince Charles to sleep in the room with the bishop.
“No, no, no! I am sleeping here on the sofa.” Charles seemed incredibly firm in his decision. I had to comply.
“He is such a kind person,” I thought out loud, but my belief in Charles’s ‘kindness’ was about to be shaken.
“Which bed would you like to sleep in?” asked Stephen.
“Does not matter, you chose,” I said. Stephen chose the bed next to the window and I chose the one next to the wall which separated us from the sitting room. Stephen and I dived into our beds and continued our conversation about the day’s experience. Suddenly Charles looked into our room and asked if we would not mind closing the door that separated our room from the sitting room. That was the minute I started to doubt Charles’s kindness about the sofa. Why would he ask to close the door!? Within a few minutes the bishop went to sleep and only then I realised why Charles was so kind to let the holy men sleep in the same room. After all those previous sleepless nights I was preparing to sleep tight, when the bishop’s snoring started shaking not only our room but the entire block of flats! “Charles, I am going to kill you tomorrow for your sanctimonious cheating!”, I thought angrily.
“Did I snore?”, asked the bishop next morning. I was prepared to say ‘no’ out of politeness but Charles volunteered to answer instead of me.
“Did you snore?! The door between your room and mine was opening and closing at your snoring!”, said Charles.
“Well done, Charles,” I thought, “I will take this as your confession and happily grant you my absolution.”