GEORGIA: Attack on Central Baptist Church.

by Lorna Howard, Keston News Service, 15 March 2001

Late last night (14 March) five men broke into the central Baptist church in the Georgian capital Tbilisi, tied up the night-watchmen and forced their way, using a blowtorch, into the room where all the church’s valuables were kept in a safe, Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili of the Georgian Baptist church told Keston News Service today (15 March). ‘They took everything, leaving the church without a penny’. As well as the usual funds for the needs of the church, there was money for aid to refugees, and extra donations for forthcoming Easter celebrations.

Deputy head of the Georgian Bible Society Avtandil Guruli, a member of the church, told Keston by telephone from Tbilisi on 15 March that he had been called to the church first thing in the morning by Baptist Union accountant Esma Mazmishvili, who had arrived at her office at the church to find a scene of chaos. The two elderly night-watchmen, Anzor Shermadini and an unnamed colleague, were so shocked by the attack that they had been unable to leave the building. They told how two men had come to the church at about 22.30, offering printing services for the church. While they engaged the night-watchmen in conversation, two armed men arrived, who threatened the watchmen with pistols and tied them up. A fifth man, wearing a mask, brought cutting equipment, and they proceeded to break open the lock of the iron door leading to the accountant’s office, smash the wooden door behind it and cut into the safe. ‘They overturned everything,’ Guruli said, ‘There were documents lying all over the place and it was impossible to tell if any had been taken.’

Asked whether they notified the police, Guruli said that at that very moment (while he was speaking to Keston) Mazmishvili was at the local police station giving her statement. It was little more than a formality, though: ‘I have no hope that the culprits will be found,’ he said.

It is unclear who the attackers were, but this is the third action in recent weeks against the Baptist church and organisations – the Bible Society and an old people’s home under construction - associated with it. (see KNS 14 March and 9 February). The fact that a blow-torch was used gives rise to speculation, Bishop Songulashvili said, that the men are associated with defrocked Orthodox priest Basil Mkalavishvili, who took part in an attack in January on the offices of the Tbilisi newspaper Resonance, which had published materials about the violence Mkalavishvili and his supporters employ. They used a blowtorch then to seal the iron of the office door so that no-one could enter, and spoke publicly about the attack afterwards. Bishop Songulashvili, on study leave in Great Britain, has requested that the Archbishop of Canterbury appeal to the Catholicos-Patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church, who so far has not officially condemned the violent campaign against religious minorities.

Keston contacted the Georgian Embassy in London, but was told that the only person who could comment on such matters was Mr Gia, who is away in Georgia until 20 March. They had received no information about the attack on the Baptist church.

Bishop Songulashvili, who is also the head of the Bible Society, plans to return to Georgia immediately, despite the fact that Georgian authorities have not stopped these attacks and there are rumours of threats to his life. ‘The fact that no-one has been punished for any of these attacks encourages extremists,’ he told Keston. (END)