Wednesday, September 18, 2013
A Mysterious Mass Conversion From Islam to Christianity in Georgia
In 1991, 75% of Adjarians in Georgia were Muslims. Today, they have
become 75% Orthodox Christians. How can these conversions be explained,
which is apparently unique in the world?
“What time do services begin at Saint Nicholas in Batumi on Sunday
morning?” The question embarrasses the employee of the President Plaza,
one of the largest institutions in the city, a seat of the Autonomous
Republic of Adjara and the Iranian consulate. It is true that in the
province of Georgia, washed by the Black Sea, the population speaks
little English. All signs, such as signs in the streets, are in Georgian
or Russian. The employee eventually suggests joining the Church of Saint
Nicholas at 9:00 AM. In fact, the Service works strangely like a
self-service. The faithful men, women (head always covered) and children
come and go as they please, after long embracing of the icons and after
they have crossed themselves multiple times.
This curious to and fro takes most of the morning. The priest can hardly
talk to us, since he speaks only Russian and Georgian. A student,
smiling, who graduated in the language of Shakespeare, came to our
rescue. We ask him the question: “How is it that the majority of the
inhabitants of the Autonomous Republic of Adjara in Georgia, have in two
decades abandoned Islam for Orthodoxy?” The girl apologizes, caught
unaware, and prefers to dodge quickly.
Ottoman and Russian province
But the facts are there, Adjara, conquered by the Ottomans in the
seventeenth century, was overwhelmingly Muslim. In 1878, this province
of 3000 km2 falls into the lap of the Russian Empire. In 1991, after the
fall of communism and the independence of Georgia, Adjara seceded. Until
2004, the “independent” Republic is ruled by a dictator, a Muslim, Aslan
Abashidze, now on the run. Since then Adjara (400,000) has returned to
the bosom of Georgia.
According to official documents, in 1991, 75% of Adjarians were Muslims.
They are now 75% Orthodox. How can this mass conversion be explained? In
a long interview published in December 2012, Metropolitan Dimitri of
Batumi (the capital of Adjara), also nephew of Ilia II, Patriarch of
Georgia, says he was appointed parish priest of St. Nicholas in Batumi
in 1986. At that time, there was only one Orthodox church in Batumi.
“It is God’s will”
Dimitri states that “the metamorphosis of an entire region, the
conversion from Islam to Orthodoxy, or rather the return to basics, to
the faith of their ancestors,” took place before his eyes. On 13 May
1991 “5000 Muslims and atheists became Orthodox. The same year the
Church opened a school in Khulo, an ecclesiastical high school named
Saint Andrew, the first religious high school in the USSR.” The
Metropolitan of Batumi says that Adjarians were forcibly converted to
Islam by the Ottomans though, in fact, they remained Christian at heart.
According to his statement, they continued to secretly wear a cross,
they painted Easter eggs, and they retained the icons in their homes.
Dimitri says that many priests come from Muslim families. The rector of
the seminary is the grandson of a mullah, formed in Istanbul. How does
he explain the conversions brought forward on the website Provoslavie i
mir (Orthodoxy and the World): “It is God’s will. It is a miracle of
God, for unexplained reasons that could not have been predicted,” says
Missionaries from Turkey
The Great Mosque of Batumi is a few blocks from the Church of Saint
Nicholas, near the port. First observation: it is actually a lot less
crowded than the Orthodox place of worship. Nevertheless, some local
publications were denouncing a “return to Islam supported by Turkey.”
But during our stay in Adjara, we have not seen this “Islamic Turkish
fairly consistent presence” due to “the influx of missionaries,”
including disciples of the Turkish preacher Süleyman Hilmi Tunahan.
The Sarpi border crossing with Turkey is only twenty kilometers from
Batumi. If the capital of Adjara became overwhelmingly Christian,
however, the small villages in the mountains of Adjara have not denied
the Prophet. The village of Khulo, more than two hours away from the
Black Sea, has a mosque and a madrasa. Some seniors continue to speak
Turkish to us, but we cannot verify it.
A national state and Orthodox
For the visitor from the outside, the two religions appear to coexist
smoothly. The Adjarians tell you without hesitation directions to the
church or the nearest mosque. Nobody mentioned any persecution vis-à-vis
minority religions. However, these mass conversions remain taboo.
Especially as the other Muslims of Georgia (about 10% of the population)
do not seem to adopt Orthodoxy as quickly. Including Kistins, ethnic
Chechens near the border with Chechnya and Dagestan, and Shiites in
eastern Georgia, neighboring Azerbaijan.
“We must understand that the Orthodox Church is a fundamental pillar of
our national identity. In the past, we have been invaded by all our
great neighbors, the Persians, the Ottomans, the Russians. If there had
not been the cement of religion, there would be even more people of
Georgia,” said Alina Okkropiridze, former journalist and translator.
After seventy years of state atheism, at the time of the USSR, Zviad
Gamsakhurdia, the first Georgian president, wanted to create a “national
and Orthodox” state. His successor, Eduard Shevardnadze, former Minister
of Foreign Affairs of the USSR, took care “to announce his conversion to
Orthodoxy, to be baptized and to choose as his spiritual director
Patriarch Ilia II, the head of the Georgian Church since 1977,” says the
Swiss website Religioscope.
Dismantling of a minaret
Clearly, over the last two decades, the powers, the media, and
nationalist parties have been saying that a true Georgian Orthodoxy must
be foremost. Is it enough to explain, as stated by Metropolitan Dimitri,
“the return to the faith of their ancestors” of the Adjarians? At the
end of August, in the district of Adiguéni, in southwest Georgia, the
authorities dismantled a minaret on the grounds that customs duties were
not paid for construction materials. Muslims who opposed the destruction
of the building were arrested. “An ‘Orthodox’ way to do that is to aim
for the exile of the Muslim people,” complains one local site in an
article titled “Georgia: the minaret of discord.”
Translated by John Sanidopoulos. (As my French is limited, any
corrections in the translation of this article is welcomed.)