GEORGIA: Patriarchate Condemns Bible-Burning Priest.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 4 February 2002

Metropolitan Daniil Datuashvili of the Georgian Orthodox Patriarchate has condemned the Bible-burning in Tbilisi yesterday (3 February) by Father Basil Mkalavishvili, a priest of the Greek Old Calendarist Church, and called for the immediate arrest of all those involved. "The Georgian Orthodox Patriarchate takes a very negative view of what happened yesterday," he told Keston News Service from Tbilisi on 4 February. "The Patriarchate will be issuing a press statement condemning these actions. We are demanding that the government takes immediate, serious measures to arrest all those who took part."

"The entire warehouse was turned upside-down," declared Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili, the head of the Baptist Union. He expressed his alarm at the latest twist in what he called Mkalavishvili's "long-running reign of terror" against religious minorities, which has seen about a hundred violent attacks on Jehovah's Witness, Baptist and Pentecostal services, meetings and property over the past few years. "This is the first time that his group has burnt Bibles," he told Keston from Tbilisi on 4 February, "though in the past they have burnt Jehovah's Witnesses newspapers and magazines."

The Georgian Baptist Union told Keston on 3 February that at about 1 pm that day a group of about 150 people arrived at the Union's warehouse in three large buses, led by Mkalavishvili. "They broke the locks with big iron sticks, forced their way into the warehouse, took out thousands of books, put them on a big pile outside the warehouse, and set fire to the pile, adding petrol to help it get burning." Thousands of Bibles, New Testaments and Bible stories, in Georgian, Armenian and other Caucasian languages, were destroyed. "While burning these Bibles they were asked by the watchman why they did that, and the answer was that they were sectarian books," the Baptist Union reported. "When asked who they were and why they did this, they told the watchman to ask Father Basil who was leading them." Within ten minutes of the start of the attack, a television crew arrived from the private Rustavi 2 channel and began filming. A report of the incident was shown at least three times on the channel over the next 24 hours.

"I had just celebrated the Eucharist at the Central Baptist Church in Tbilisi when I was given a copy of a semi-burnt Bible. The book was still warm," commented Songulashvili. "I felt incredible pain. It was a copy of the Bible burnt in the name of Christ and religion." He told Keston that about half the destroyed books belonged to the Baptist Church and half to the Georgian Bible Society, a group that brings together many Christian Churches in the country, including the Orthodox and the Baptists.

Songulashvili reported that the police had just arrived and begun to investigate the attack.

Songulashvili told Keston he had just spoken to Patriarch Ilya of the Orthodox Church, who had expressed his great concern and alarm. "He encouraged us to sue Mkalavishvili, although he is afraid people might think Mkalavishvili is connected with the Orthodox Church." The Patriarchate defrocked Mkalavishvili in 1996 and he later joined the jurisdiction of the Greek Old Calendarist Church, under Metropolitan Cyprian of Oropos and Fili.

Songulashvili said he was suspicious about the role of Rustavi 2, a suspicion he said Patriarch Ilya had shared. "Their TV cameras arrived almost immediately. Normally when you try to arrange something with the TV you have to tell them well in advance and even provide transport for them." He questioned the links between Mkalavishvili and Rustavi 2, especially as in their report the company had described him as being editor of the Jehovah's Witnesses' magazine Watchtower. "They repeated this disinformation three times, despite the fact that after the first showing of the report our people phoned the TV company and pointed this out. The producers promised to change this the next time, but the report went out twice more without this disinformation being changed."

Contacted by Keston on 4 February, a translator at Rustavi 2 told Keston that all the staff of the Sunday Courier programme, which had broadcast the report, were out of the office. She declined to give mobile numbers for the programme's editor Nika Tabatadze or the journalist Eka Saria who had filed the report. However, she said that the station had not learnt about the Bible-burning from Mkalavishvili. "Someone called in and told us. I don't know who it was." She denied that the station was working with Mkalavishvili.

Songulashvili reported that he would be meeting Catholic and Lutheran leaders later in the day, as well as Gela Charkviani, a political advisor to Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze. (END)