The Evangelist-Baptist Church has won the hearts of many in Georgia. In the past two decades, Church leadership has come into the spotlight on numerous occasions for championing the cause of a common humanity and mutual love in the face of xenophobia, racism, homophobia, and gender-based discrimination. While fervent Orthodox Christians decry the denomination for erring from God’s true path, the Evangelical-Baptist Church has garnered sympathy from the liberal faction of society, a feat rarely accomplished by a religious group in an Orthodoxite country like Georgia, where interfaith relations are strained at best.
The most recent talk of the town is the January 2021 confrontation between the Muslim and Orthodox Christian residents of Buknari, a small village in Georgia’s western region. Christian residents of Buknari attacked Muslim devotees for holding prayer groups at a house they had purchased for this purpose a few months prior. Together with non-governmental organizations, the Evangelical-Baptist Church of Georgia immediately labeled the episode as an act of intolerance and issued a statement, suggesting that “a country where young people are physically attacked for prayer does not have a future.” The Church publicly apologized on behalf of the country’s Christians to the Muslim minority for once again falling prey to the anti-Muslim sentiment prevalent in the country.
This is just one example of the Evangelical-Baptist Church taking a strong stance against the injustices befalling the most vulnerable factions of Georgian society. In 2020, a transgender woman set herself on fire in protest of unemployment and lack of state assistance amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. The Church responded by turning one of the rooms in its headquarters into a shelter. Apart from this immediate action, Malkhaz Songhulashvili, the former metropolitan bishop and now a bishop of the Church, verbally condemned the shameful inaction of the government in response to the transgender community’s cry of desperation.
The Evangelical-Baptist congregation recently celebrated its 150th anniversary in Georgia. Yet, like other religious groups, it remained largely invisible throughout the Soviet era due to the state’s distinctly anti-religious fervor and perpetual persecution of all religious groups. According to Church members, women’s dedication to maintaining religious practice is what allowed this small parish of a few thousand devotees, at best, to persevere despite the hardships. “They gathered regularly, read the gospel, and helped each other. So, once church members could worship freely, there was no question that women could be ordained,” recounts Songhulashvili. The Church’s stance on gender equality – as epitomized by its outspoken bishop and public figure, Rusudan Gotsiridze, – is remarkable amidst the male-dominated discourse and leadership of the Orthodox Church.
The outlook on women is not the only point of departure between the Evangelical-Baptist Church and the Georgian Orthodox Church. Long gone are the days of fraternity that distinguished the final years of the Soviet Union when religious groups in the country, especially the Christian denominations, joined forces in support of the national liberation movement. Once the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, the Georgian Orthodox Church found itself in the spotlight as the country’s “historical church” and the cornerstone of Georgian national identity – a claim foregrounded by Georgia’s first president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia. The authority of the Orthodox Church snowballed once it was constitutionally accorded a “special” status in the mid-1990s. This precipitated its withdrawal from active interfaith dialogue with Georgia’s religious minorities. The Evangelical-Baptist Church, on the other hand, became a leading voice in this domain, as well as in the struggle for overall social justice and equality. The Church has instituted multiple humanitarian initiatives, including but not limited to the “Good Samaritan” – a shelter for abused and homeless individuals, educational projects in IDP settlements created in the aftermath of the 2008 Russian-Georgian War, day centers and soup kitchens for street children, seasonal programs that provide firewood to socially vulnerable families in rural areas, as well as a home for the elderly that also served as a sanctuary for pregnant women.
It should also be pointed out that the Evangelical-Baptist Church in Georgia is distinctly different from congregations of the same denomination in other parts of the world, namely in the United States, Latin America, or Africa. If the latter usually occupy the conservative end of the spectrum, the Evangelical-Baptist Church in Georgia is almost startling in its “progressive rhetoric.” Part of the Orthodox clergy and devotees associate this political orientation prevalent among the country’s liberal circles with the Western project of political domination and moral depravity.
The question that interests me is not why the Evangelical-Baptist Church of Georgia promotes care, forgiveness, tolerance, and above all, love for all beings – after all, observant readers would be quick to recognize these teachings in the Gospels. Many would concede that the world would be a much better place if all of us shared the same dedication to collective well-being. Instead, what I find worthy of inquiry is the curious alignment of the Church’s philosophy with the normative project of political secularism that the pro-Western section of the population seems so eager to embrace. The social involvement campaigns and anti-discriminatory rhetoric of the congregation resonate with some of the recommendations Georgia has received from the EU to ensure cooperation and integration. The EU-Georgia Association Agreement signed in 2017, for instance, highlights “effective implementation of the anti-discrimination law,” enhanced gender equality, and equal treatment in social, political, and economic life as priority areas for cooperation.
In a religious and cultural environment where difference is often punished, ostracized, and silenced rather than celebrated, could the survival of this small congregation be explained by its fortuitous self-branding? The Church’s official stance of interreligious conflicts and discriminatory incidents, if interrogated in terms of their ideological and linguistic qualities, reveals heavy reliance on what Sudipta Kaviraj calls ethical secularity, a framework of beliefs about moral conduct that derives its legitimacy from human rather than divine sources. Many of the statements made by the church leadership, but especially the Oxford-educated former Metropolitan Bishop Malkhaz Songhulashvili, are reminiscent of the human rights-based lingo propagated by non-governmental and international organizations. In an article written in response to the anti-gay rally held in Tbilisi in 2013, Songhulashvili ruminated whether heightened secularity could be a solution to the problem of “irrational phobias” in the country. After all, he went on, in a secular state, “the primary source of legitimacy are the people themselves.”
The juxtaposition of rational and irrational mindsets is a trope all too familiar in the secular discourse employed for demarcating religious and secular domains where the latter is governed by reason while the former by the lack of it. Such discursive affiliation with the secular narrative could ultimately be helping the Evangelical-Baptist Church in Georgia to emerge as the poster child of “modern religiosity” fitting for the country’s pro-Western aspirations and to stay afloat in the religious market monopolized by the Georgian Orthodox Church.