As I have remarked many times before in these pages, the history of the Church in Georgia is rich with stories and anecdotes of foreigners from countries hostile to Georgia, who have heard Christ’s call to serve, have submitted to baptism and often ordination, and have paid the heavy price of martyrdom at the hands of their own people. The story of Saint Abo Tbilieli is a good example of this.
Georgia, particularly eastern Georgia, has a very longstanding relationship with Iran. Many Georgians were carried off into slavery in Iran over the past two millennia, and Georgia served as a battleground between the Roman and Persian worlds for many centuries. The Georgian language has a huge number of loan-words from Persian, and Persian names are commonly adopted by Georgian people. Many historical figures in Georgia, such as King Mirian and King Vakhtang Gorgasali, were of Persian descent. The history of the interaction between Georgian and Persian peoples has sometimes been co-operative and sometime hostile; Persia’s colonial occupations of Georgia were characterised by intermittent periods of toleration and persecution of the Christian faith.
This history of the conversion of the Persian military commander Omar to Christianity in 7th century Georgia, his ordination and consecration as a Bishop, and his ultimate martyrdom at the hands of the Persian Zoroastrians, is well known by Georgian Christians, and a reminder that the Church in Georgia transcends race or national origin. It ialso provides inspiration for those who may seek to reach out to the 16,000 Iranians currently living in Georgia; the country has a long history of baptising and integrating Persians, and there are few families in eastern Georgia without a Christianised Persian ancestor.
From “Lives of the Georgian Saints” by Archpriest Zacharaiah Machitadze, Saint Herman of Alaska Press.
The holy hieromartyr Neophytus of Urbnisi descended from a line of Persian fire-worshippers.
In the 7th century, by order of the Saracen emir Mumni (Mu’min), the military leader Ahmad attacked Georgia with an enormous army. After overrunning the central part of Shida (Inner) Kartli, Ahmad dispatched two of his commanders, Omar and Burul, to the capital city of Mtskheta. At the confluence of the Mtkvari and Aragvi rivers, across from the village of Tsikhedidi in the rocky Sarkineti region, the invaders discovered a group of caves and plotted to occupy them. They tried to cross the Mtkvari but were unable.
Having suffered a setback, the enemies asked their captives what was located in those caves. They were told that this was the Shio-Mgvime Monastery, where dwelt God’s chosen, who had deprived themselves of every earthly blessing.
Surprised at this reply, the commanders decided to pass this information on to Ahmad. Then, as though it were commonplace, Ahmad sent Omar to the monastery to ask the monks to pray for him and remember him at the grave of their abbot, Saint Shio. “Pray for me, O slaves of God, and accept these gifts of aloe and incense. Offer these as a sacrifice to your abbot,” he told them.
Approaching the monastery caves, Omar sent a messenger to inform the monks that he was coming to them in peace and bearing gifts. Drawing near to the monastery gates, the commander saw an army of incorporeal hosts descending from the heavens and among them an elder, radiant with a great light.
The meek and modest behavior of the monks left a great impression on Omar. He soon understood that the strange armies he had seen on the steps of the monastery were angels of God and that the elder was Saint Shio of Mgvime, abbot of the monastery. He related his vision to the monks and vowed to return to them, receive the sacrament of Holy Baptism, be tonsured a monk, and remain there to join in their holy labors.
Soon Omar abandoned all his possessions, his military rank, and his wealth and was baptized in the Christian Faith at the Shio-Mgvime Monastery as he had promised. Two of his slaves were baptized with him as well. Omar received the new name Neophytus (Newly Planted / From the Greek word neophytos, which in I Tim. 3:6 refers to a new convert.), and his slaves became Christodoulus (Christ’s Slave) and Christopher (Christ-bearer).
According to God’s will, Saint Neophytus was consecrated bishop of Urbnisi, and all were amazed at his wisdom and steadfastness. He was a true father to his flock: “He strengthened the weak, healed the sick, raised the fallen, cleansed the possessed, directed the lost and sought out those who were perishing, protecting them, and forbidding them to wander off again.”
But the enemy could not tolerate the native Persian’s apostolic activity, and he convinced the fire-worshippers to kill the Christian shepherd. So the unbelievers devised an ambush and attacked Neophytus’ isolated cell, then tied him up and began to mock, curse, and revile him. They knew that Saint Neophytus longed to become like the holy protomartyr Stephen, and they plotted to stone him to death.
When his time to depart this world had arrived, Saint Neophytus turned to his persecutors with a tender voice, saying, “Sweet is death to me, O unbelievers! Sweet it is to me. I desire to sunder the link between my mortal and immortal nature.… With my own blood I will confirm the Holy Church, which is founded upon the Precious Blood of the Son and Word of God, Whom I preach. May that which was foreordained for me by the Providence of God be fulfilled, for He has called me to His light from the depths of ungodliness!”
The furious pagans stoned the saint to death. With his last breath Holy Hieromartyr Neophytus cried out, “Lord Jesus Christ receive my soul!”