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Religious Conversions in Ajaria, Georgia

Mathijs Pelkmans

Editor’s note: Previous portions of this article were published in the East-West Church & Ministry Report 15 (Fall 2007), 6-8; and 16 (Winter 2008), 12-13.

 Continuity

Although non-Christians in Ajaria frequently employed the verb “to convert” (perekhodit’) to describe the actions of new Christians, many converts did not use the word because of the unwanted connotation of change. What they had experienced should, in their view, not be understood as a personal change or disruption but rather a regaining of the true self in Christianity. Conversion enabled a return to, not a new embrace of, Christianity. A young woman in Khulo expressed this notion directly: “I don’t have the feeling that I am switching from one to another religion. No! I have returned to my native religion.”

Tamaz, for example, stressed that Ajaria was historically Christian and that Christianity was the religion to which his forefathers adhered. He portrayed his conversion not as a change to something new but as the continuation of Christianity that had remained part of his Georgian culture, even through periods of interruptions. These notions were made meaningful by reference to the distant past, a past in which Ajarians were Christian.

 Enemies

When new Christians talked about history or culture, it was often in opposition to the “other,” which manifested itself in speech as “the Turk,” “the Ottoman,” or more broadly as “Muslims” and was presented as radically different from the “self.” The “other” was simultaneously a religious and a cultural “other.” This was well captured in the statement by a young woman who had been baptized several years earlier: “When I read the Qur’an, I do not recognize anything. It is not about our people, not about Georgians. In contrast, when I started to read the Bible, I recognized everything; everything struck me as familiar. The Bible is about people like me.” In this short comment, Islam and Christianity were neatly opposed. The Bible was presented as a book about Georgians. It was contrasted with the Qur’an, whose messages were portrayed as alien.

Significantly, the comments were not only about difference but also about danger. Muslims were thought of as having done a great injustice to the Georgians generally and to the inhabitants of Ajaria specifically, as the next comment shows: “I used to have nothing to do with religion; I was a simple farmer, although once in a while I went to the old [closed] church out of curiosity. But I did read a lot, for example, that the Turks had cut off 300 heads and thrown them in to the Chorokhi [River] and then sent a message to Skhalta that the same thing would happen there if people didn’t submit to Islam.” Similar stories about the cruelties of the “Turks” or the “Ottoman Empire” were told over and over again.

 

Christianity Equated with Progress

In the previous sections, I argued that conversion was imagined as a return to a glorious Christian past and that the stories that were told about becoming Christian underlined the converts’ national affiliation through an oppositional “other.” Important as these aspects were for legitimizing the personal adoption of Christianity, the “past” and the “other” also played an important role in ideas about the region as a whole. New Christians endorsed the idea that the “backwardness” of Ajaria could be eliminated by the “return” to Christianity. Through imaginings of the progressive nature of Christianity and its favorable comparison with “backward Turks,” Christianity contained a promise, one of progress and unambiguous (re)connection of Ajaria with “civilized” Georgian society.

New Christians, but also people without clear religious predilections, worried about the possible strength of Islam in Upper Ajaria. One person told me, “There simply can’t [shouldn’t] be a future for Islam. It is a dark, dark religion. It turns people into slaves of Allah.” A lecturer from the University of Batumi similarly invoked the idea of Islam’s backwardness. An encounter with an imam led him to express his worries about the activities of Muslim leaders: “You know what would happen if they were in control? They would send us straight back to the Arabia of the 7th century, to Muhammad and his camels.” The alleged regressive characteristics of Islam were placed in unambiguous contrast to the achievements of Christianity. Once, when visiting one of the medieval bridges across the Ach’aristsqali River, a Christian acquaintance told me the following: “Can you imagine, they [the Ottomans] ruled here for four centuries and during that period not a single bridge or monument was constructed, whereas these ingenious bridges were already built in the 12th century when Ajaria was Christian. Architects would not be able to construct them even today.” The medieval monuments and bridges were symbols of a desirable and unambiguous connection with the rest of Georgia. What the new Christians aimed for was to be a part of “civilized” Georgian society. For converts the “return” to a Christian past contained promises for the future

Christianity Equated with Education and Enlightenment

The theme of progress was also evoked when Christians stressed that better education would automatically precipitate conversion. “If a person is educated and so is his family, then they shouldn’t have a problem arriving at certain conclusions when reviewing our history. And if they are educated and understanding, then they shouldn’t forbid their children to become Christian.” Likewise, baptized Ajarians said that although their conversion had provoked negative reactions, “the educated people” had supported them. According to the converts, educated people recognized the importance of Christianity in the project of modernization.

Among the 64 adult Christians about whom I collected sufficient information, there were 22 teachers, six civil servants working at the town or the district (raion) administration, five nurses, and four physicians and other medical specialists; the remaining 27 people had occupations such as housewife or bookkeeper or formerly held a position (mostly middle management) at one of the clothing factories in town. They were almost exclusively representatives of the educated “middle class,” while farmers and technicians (former kolkhozniki) were virtually absent among the new Christians. The middle-class families valued education and sent their children to Batumi, Tbilisi, or other cities to attend the university. Members of these families took up positions in state structures and often lived part of their lives outside Khulo, mostly in the urban areas in Georgia.

The emphasis that converts put on their relationships and their social environment does not negate the sincerity of their belief in Christianity, but it does suggest that their life experiences played a major role in their acceptance of the Christian message. The prevalent idea among some converts that once people became educated, they would adopt Christianity was therefore true enough, albeit in a slightly different way than they saw it. It was not education as such, but the content of this education (with a strong focus on Georgian history) and the context in which this education took place (higher education was always located on Georgian “Christian” territory) that made “educated people” more receptive to the Christian message.

Proponents of Christianity cashed in on societal changes facilitated by Soviet rule and on a nationalist ideology that imagined Georgia as a coherent Christian nation surrounded by dangerous and “foreign” Muslim peoples. The fact that regional elites either had been Christian all along or relatively quickly converted to Christianity further contributed to the “Christianization” of the public sphere. These elites used their influence to establish Christian schools and to introduce Bible studies as an obligatory subject in “secular” education. Moreover, they excluded Muslim voices from the media and from scholarly writings. F

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.