A DIFFERENT BEAT
Volume 18 Number 2
Pandemonium in Court
01 April 2005
For five years Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili and his church had been the focus of attacks led by a defrocked Orthodox priest.
From the Caucasus, long associated with conflict, comes a remarkable story of forgiveness. Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili of the Evangelical Baptist Church, the largest Protestant denomination in Georgia, has taken a bold step towards furthering religious unity.
For five years the bishop and his church had been the focus of attacks led by a defrocked Orthodox priest, Father Basil Mkalavishvili. The attackers burned Bibles and books (including thousands of copies of books the bishop had written), organized raids on religious minorities and beat up clergy from non-Orthodox denominations. They insulted Baptist clergy, women and children and published a list of ‘enemies of Georgia’ which included the bishop.
Last March Father Basil and nine of his followers were arrested. Bishop Malkhaz was called to testify at their trial in November. The bishop had visited the priest in prison and sensed no remorse in him but ‘realized that he had an absolutely wrong image of the Christian faith’. So he decided in the courtroom to ‘preach’ to the accused.
The bishop spoke for three hours about the true values of Christianity, about the ecumenical movement and the importance of religious liberty for everybody. The judge, prosecutor and lawyers were attentive and asked questions. ‘But everybody was very nervous,’ says the bishop. ‘They did not know what would be my concluding word.’
At the end the judge asked, ‘What do you wish to happen to them?’ ‘I demand that these people be pardoned and released from the prison,’ the bishop replied.
The defence lawyers could not believe their ears. ‘Do you really want to forgive them everything, including the material loss?’ ‘Yes,’ he answered, saying that he desired an unconditional absolution. He had to explain the nature of Christian love and forgiveness. ‘I do not demand anything from them except the red wine which we will drink together when they are set free.’
The whole courtroom dissolved in laughter. Then the Bishop, ignoring court rules, rushed to the cage where the prisoners were held and shook hands with them all. ‘That was one of the most moving experiences in my life,’ he says. ‘People were crying, clapping hands, weeping.... When I was leaving the crowded room a small boy made his way to me. He grabbed a sleeve of my frock and told me with grateful voice: “Thank you Bishop!” I blessed the child.’ It was Father Basil’s grandson. That evening the Bishop received a message from the prisoners: ‘Even if we are not released from prison we will be ever grateful to you.’
It would have been unacceptable, he believes, to make Mkalashvili confess in front of the TV cameras. ‘I wanted to forgive these people without depriving them of any human dignity. If through this act of forgiveness Christ spoke to their hearts and minds, which I believe he did, then they will certainly repent either openly or secretly before the Lord. We can be sceptical about their conversion but I am convinced of my own conversion that day.’
In a nationally televised ceremony marking the tenth anniversary of the bishop’s ministry at the cathedral, tribute was paid to the work of the church building bridges between the Georgian and Western cultures. He received many gifts but the most precious, he said, were two small icons and a huge anniversary cake sent from prison by Father Basil.
At the end of January Father Basil was sentenced to six years in jail. Now the bishop is working for an amnesty for him. Writing to his friends, thanking them for their support over difficult years, the Bishop said, ‘In the past we were praying that Mkalavishvili be arrested, now we are praying that he is released from the jail.’
Michael Henderson is the author of ‘Forgiveness: Breaking the Chain of Hate’, Grosvenor Books, 2002, ISBN 1-85239-031-X. Visit his website at www.michaelhenderson.org.uk