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A Mysterious Mass Conversion From Islam to Christianity in Georgia

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  • Bill Samsonoff
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 19, 2013

      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.)
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