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Religious Conversions in Ajaria, Georgia

Mathijs Pelkmans

Editor’s Note: The first portion of this article appeared in the previous issue of the East-West Church & Ministry Report 15 (Fall 2007): 6-8.

Tamaz

Tamaz, who had been teaching at the Christian lyceum since 1991, was the only one in his family who opted for Christianity. His quest for a satisfactory worldview, which eventually led him away from Islam and toward Christianity, had been long and, in view of his continued ambivalence about his decision, difficult. Born in 1958, Tamaz grew up in what he called a “true atheistic period,” although his parents continued to observe Muslim rites even then. Tamaz himself, however, refused to participate in these practices, and his parents sometimes half-jokingly called him “our little heathen.” After Tamaz completed high school, he entered the pedagogical institute in Batumi. After four years, Tamaz returned to Khulo and married a girl from a neighboring village.

Shortly after my wedding in 1982, my wife and I visited Tbilisi. By chance we passed the Church of David. The doors of the church were open, and the sounds of the choir filled the air. It struck me as very beautiful, and I told my wife that I would have a look inside. It was one of those exciting moments. I was completely taken aback by the peace and beauty of the scene. It was as if I had found peace, and I understood that this was what I had been looking for all of my life, that this was part of my life, my culture.

On their return to Khulo, his sudden interest in Christianity slackened. In 1991, however, the local boarding school was turned into the Spiritual Lyceum of the Apostle Andrew. Tamaz found employment in the lyceum as a teacher of Russian. Although teachers were not required to adopt Christianity, working at the lyceum involved being exposed to Christianity: During the period that I worked here, I came to a point – and I don’t say this to portray myself as better than others – that step by step I returned to the old religion to which my forefathers three centuries ago had adhered. The final decision to be baptized was not an easy step, but the [historical] works and sources I read convinced me that my forefathers had been Christians. In 1999, with the help of Father Iosebi I finally managed to break the barrier. With his assistance I managed to rid myself of the Muslim rites and customs that were in my flesh, and I returned to my native religion.

Badri

Badri was a student of veterinary medicine in Tbilisi in the early 1980s: At that time I visited churches as if they were museums. I did not know anything, and I did not have strong beliefs, neither in Islam nor in Christianity. Once, my friends made plans to go out. I joined them without asking where we were going until it became clear we were going to attend a church service. At the time this was, of course, strictly forbidden. The KGB kept an eye on everything. After we had entered [the church], I watched how the others received blessings. I found out how I had to act and decided to go myself as well. I was insecure, of course; I didn’t know if what I was doing was allowed. But the priest did not ask me any questions and drew a cross on my forehead with wax. After this event I went more often, also without my friends, and every time I became more intrigued. I also started to read literature about Christianity.

After his studies, Badri returned to Khulo and had no further opportunity to continue the quest he had started. He became a teacher at the Christian lyceum in 1991, but he was not baptized until the church in Khulo was opened in 1996: I didn’t get baptized earlier because of my neighbors. They can’t even comprehend such a move; it is not part of their understanding. From their perspective, Islam is the proper religion. I felt they were giving me strange looks. Don’t think that it was an easy decision; there were unpleasant responses from neighbors who told me that I had made a big mistake. But I always replied that I had made the right decision, that I had chosen the path of our forefathers. Convinced that Ajaria’s future would be Christian, he enrolled his two children in the Christian lyceum and later decided to have them baptized, without consulting his relatives.

Ketevan

Ketevan was still very young when her father died. She was raised by her mother and grandmother. When she was about 11 years old, a neighbor of Georgian-Christian origin told Ketevan and her mother that she wanted to baptize Ketevan. Although her mother declined the request, Ketevan presented the event as a turning point in her life. After this, she stressed, she became very interested in Christianity. When she was in the eleventh grade, Ketevan wanted to be baptized. However, her grandmother was against it, and there was no way Ketevan could make such a decision without her grandmother’s consent.

Only later, after Ketevan enrolled in the school of music in Batumi and had lived with relatives in the city for several years, did she start to think more concretely about adopting Christianity: My friends, although not all of them were Christians, shared that same lifestyle. At school we often sang religious songs, and because of the acoustics we often practiced in the church. Then I realized that I wanted to lead this life with these friends, but that would be impossible without being baptized. I then remembered what my neighbor had said ten years before. For me it was a confusing period. I even started to have dreams in which I entered the church to be baptized, but I always woke up before the ceremony was completed. I was unaware of it then, but now I know that these were messages from God. When I was in the second year, we talked about the issue in my family. Mother was not against it, or at least she didn’t say that she disagreed. Her grandmother, however, was against Ketevan’s plan from the first moment. “Although she didn’t threaten me with reprisals, she never gave her approval. But she has come to accept it.”

Marina

Marina explained to me that she had recently gone through a difficult period in her life. Since her conversion in 1998, she had been separated from her husband, but they were planning to get back together. She emphasized that her marital problems were, to a great extent, caused by the Muslim clergy: “They have tried everything to get us divorced, simply because they fear that [if we stay married] it would speed up the decline of Islam; they were afraid to lose their control over the community. But you know what is so interesting? My husband is now himself preparing to be baptized. He tells me that he is ready for it now.” Marina was one of the first people in Khulo who converted. This, in addition to the difficulties she experienced following her conversion, made her a kind of heroine for other converts. During a two-hour session we spoke about her experiences:

Of course it did not just come out of the blue. When I was young I often had to travel and I remember very well visiting a church in Sverdlovsk [in the late 1980s]. Then I already understood that only Christianity saves one’s soul. Later, when they opened the lyceum and Father Grigori came here [he later became the director of the Christian lyceum], I got more involved. [Besides him] there were also a few nuns, and I often talked about my feelings with one of them. She would give me things to read, and we discussed them. But at that time I still could not decide to make that step.

Marina hesitated for a second before she told me about the incident that prompted her decision. She had joined the priests from Khulo on a trip to the church in Skhalta, where sermons were being preached. After the sermon had ended she went out for a short walk: I was walking around, captured in my own thoughts, when I saw something between two trees. It was as if there suddenly was a wide, shining path through the forest. On the middle of that road, I saw an old man in a black cassock. He stood there, or rather was waiting, with a staff in one hand and a cross in the other. He looked up to me and told me, “Don’t wait any longer with what you have to do.” He turned around and disappeared as suddenly as he had arrived. Then I became aware that he was my ancestor. It was even as if I had known his face all along. You see, my ancestors used to be priests. The last priest in Ajaria was one of my forefathers. I know that it was he who had sent me on the right track. The next day I was baptized.

These conversion accounts tell us something of how new Christians explain and defend their decision to be baptized. F

The conclusion of this article will be published in the next issue of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.

Edited excerpts reprinted with permission from Mathijs Pelkmans, Defending the Border: Identity, Religion, and Modernity in the Republic of Georgia (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006).

Mathijs Pelkmans is a member of the Department of Socialist and Post-Socialist Eurasia, Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle/Saale, Germany.