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University of Reading scholars in the Arab village of Nazareth in Israel have discovered the remains of an Eastern Orthodox church, encompassing a 1st Century AD Jewish home. Cross-referencing this with 7th century travellers accounts, it is believed that this church is the Church of the Nutrition, built during the period of the Eastern Roman Empire over the site traditionally believed to have been the dwelling of Saint Joseph, the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ.

The video below explains the findings in more detail. While the veracity of Jesus’ residence in this home can not be proven, it is obvious that Christians in Nazareth in the early days of Christianity believed it to be the case and convinced the Church hierarchy of this.

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Today is what is known as a “soul day” in the Church, when people pray for the souls of their deceased relatives. Concurrently, it is a the commemoration of the martyrdom of nine children of Georgia’s Tao-Klarjeti region, now lying within Turkey’s borders, at the headwaters of the Mtkvari/Kura river. At the time of this incident, Christianity had already been the State religion in Iberia (Eastern Georgia) for over 200 years, but indigenous paganism and Iranian Zoroastrianism still persisted in the country in many areas. Colchis was incorporated into the Roman province of Lazika during the reign of Justinian in the 6th century, involving much of Georgia’s coastal regions, but the inland regions of Georgia’s west remained under the control of the Chosroid dynasty that ruled Iberia at the time, which alternated between vassalage of Constantinople and Persia in order to maintain autonomy. 

Kola (Gole in Turkish) is in Ardahan province of today’s Turkey and was seized from the Georgian Atabegs of Samtskhe by the Ottomans in 1561. It was conquered by the Russians in 1878 and remained within the Russian Empire until 1919, following which it was under Armenian occupation for a year until being handed over to Turkey by the Bolshiviks. Kola is around 100 kilometres southwest of Akhalkalaki in Georgia’s Samtskhe-Javakheti region.

Gole Village may be seen just to the south of Ardahan town, marked in red on the map

Many centuries ago, the village of Kola was located at the source of the Mtkvari River. There Christians and pagans dwelt together as neighbors. Christian and pagan children would play together, but when the Christian children heard church bells ringing, they recognized the call to prayer and dropped their games. Nine pagan children—Guram, Adarnerse, Baqar, Vache, Bardzim, Dachi, Juansher, Ramaz, and Parsman—would follow the Christian children to church.

But the Christians always stopped them near the gates of the church and reprimanded them, saying, “You are children of pagans. You cannot enter God’s holy house.” They would return sorry and dejected.

One day the nine pagan children tried to enter the church forcibly, but they were cast out and scolded. “If you want to enter the church, you must believe in our Lord Jesus Christ and be baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” they were told. “You must receive Holy Communion and join the community of Christian believers.”

With great joy the youths promised the Christians that they would receive Holy Baptism. When the Christians of Kola related to their priest the good news of the pagan boys’ desire, he recalled the words of the Gospel: He that loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me: and he that loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he that takes not his cross, and follows after Me, is not worthy of Me. (Matt. 10:37–38).

He was not afraid of the anger that would follow from the pagan community, but rather took the boys on a cold winter night and baptized them in the icy river. A miracle occurred while the Holy Sacrament was being celebrated: the water became warm and angelic hosts appeared to the youths. Greatly encouraged in their faith, the children decided to remain in the Christian community rather than return to their parents.

When their parents learned that they had been baptized in the Christian Faith, they dragged their children away from the church, abusing and beating them into submission all the way home. The heroic children endured the abuses and, though they went hungry and thirsty for seven days, repeated again and again, “We are Christians and will not eat or drink anything that was prepared for idols!”

Neither gentle flattery, nor costly clothing, nor promises of good things to come could tempt the God-fearing youths. Rather they asserted, “We are Christians and want nothing from you but to leave us alone and allow us to join the Christian community!”

The enraged parents went and reported to the prince everything that had happened. But the prince was of no help—he simply told them, “They are your children, do with them as you wish.” The obstinate pagans asked the prince permission to stone the children. So a large pit was dug where the youths had been baptized, and the children were thrown inside.

“We are Christians, and we will die for Him into Whom we have been baptized!” proclaimed the holy martyrs, the Nine Children of Kola, before offering up their souls to God.

Their godless parents took up stones, and then others joined in, until the entire pit had been filled. They beat the priest to death, robbed him, and divided the spoils among themselves.

The martyric contest of the Nine Righteous Children of Kola occurred in the 6th century, in the historical region of Tao in southern Georgia.”

from “Lives of the Georgian Saints” by Archpriest Zacharaiah Machitadze, Saint Hermans Press, 2006.

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As we wrote about here, in 2016 the heads of all fourteen autocephalous Churches of the Orthodox Church will meet for a Great Council. As some churches did not exist as autocephalous (self-governed) churches at the time of the last Ecumenical Council of 787 in Nicaea, this will be the first time in history that all fourteen hierarchs of the Church will convene to discuss Church affairs in this level of detail. The destination for this council is the Cathedral of Holy Peace, or Hagia Eirene.

The following article by Archdeacon John Chryssavgis of the Ecumenical Patriarchate details the objectives and agenda for this Great Council.

The council of 2016, which has been on the table for discussion and preparation since at least 1961 (although there were earlier proposals for such a council in the 1920s and 1930s), will for the first time ever gather representatives from all fourteen independent Orthodox Churches. The very conception, let alone the convocation of such a great or general council, is entirely unprecedented. It will be attended by patriarchs, archbishops, and bishops from the fourteen autocephalous Orthodox Churches, including those from all of the ancient patriarchates, with the exception of Rome…..

The issues for discussion and decision at the Great Council have been painstakingly determined since the early 1970s, with some of them going back to the early 1960s. The topics and texts include some esoteric items, such as the ranking of churches and discussion about a common calendar; but they also include problems that emerge from adapting an ancient faith to a modern reality—like precepts of fasting and, in particular, regulations of marriage in a multicultural and interreligious world.

Most importantly, the documents tackle sensitive matters, such as relations of the Orthodox Church with the other Christian confessions, the role and response of the Orthodox Church to the contemporary challenges of our age, as well as “unorthodox” (or uncanonical) governance issues facing the Orthodox Church in the Western world.

The article may be read in its entirety here.  Of relevance to the Georgian Church will be the governance of its churches amongst the Diaspora in Russia, Europe and the United States. Patriarch Ilia II of Georgia will attend to represent the Georgian Church at these historic discussions and deliberations.

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Somewhat coincidental with the theme of yesterday’s post, today’s Saint’s Day focusses on a Georgian raised in the Ottoman Empire and martyred during Greece’s struggle for independence from the Ottomans.

It is particularly interesting that Saint Tevdore, an Ajaran raised in Trebizond (Trabzon in today’s Turkish Republic). Trebizond, located on the southeastern shores of the Black Sea, was one of the last Orthodox Christian enclaves in Anatolia to resist colonisation by the Ottomans until the mid 15th century. The region was a fascinating patchwork of Orthodox Greeks, Orthodox Georgians (Laz), Armenians of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Roman Catholic Armenians, and Eastern Orthodox Armenians (known by Armenians as Hay-Horum or Chalcedonian Orthodox, who sometimes worshipped in churches of Georgian architectural design in this diverse region).

Saint Tevdore is mentioned to have entered a Georgian monastery in Smyrna, on the Aegean coast of western Anatolia. This was an interesting detail, as I was aware of Georgian monasteries in Cyprus, Bulgaria, Jerusalem and Mount Athos, but not Smyrna.

The Great Fire of Smyrna of 1922 is covered in great detail in Giles Milton’s eminently readable Paradise Lost. A prosperous multi-ethnic trading city for centuries, and one of the few Christian-majority cities of the Empire at the time, it was badly affected by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1919 and the Greek invasion of Anatolia in the same year. Seeing their mission as the reconquest of lost Christian territories seized by the Muslim Turks in the late Middle Ages, the Greek Expeditionary Force from the Greek Mainland aimed to unite the independent Greek Homeland with its traditional sister territories in Asia, the vast Anatolian region that previously made up the heartland of the Greek-speaking Eastern Roman Empire, extending from the Aegean Sea to the borders of the Russian Empire in the South Caucasus. Given that most Greeks at the time lived in Asia under Turkish rule this was perhaps an understandable ambition.

Milton does not shirk from identifying Greek atrocities during this war of reconquista, and it is well known that both Greek and Turkish forces engaged in tremendous destruction of life and property in thousands of villages with mixed Christian and Muslim populations. Even a century afterwards, forgiveness for misdeeds committed generations ago has been rare and hard-won on both sides.

The collapse of the Greek Offensive in Anatolia and the spirited counter-offensive of Ataturk’s Turkish Republican troops resulted in Greek troops being swept back to the Aegean coast in the west in 1922, with unprotected Christian communities left vulnerable to Turkish Republican reprisals.

Despite initial promises of amnesty, Turkish troops engaged in a deliberate campaign of rape, pillage, arson and murder in the richest city in the Near East, Smyrna (Izmir). Greek and Armenian populations were decimated and the city put to the torch. Despite having urged the Christians of the Ottoman Empire to rise up against their Muslim overlords, the Allied Powers did little or nothing to protect them when the venture faltered.

Unlikely heroes of the Great Fire rose to the challenge before them, that of saving hundreds of thousands of innocent lives. Asa Jennings, a modest YMCA secretary in Smyrna, somehow leveraged his US passport into creation of a not-very-official American Relief Committee which later allowed him to commandeer the entire Greek merchant navy and armed fleet, armed with no more than bravado, bluff and determination to evacuate as many Christian civilians, Greek and Armenian, as possible. Jennings was credited with evacuating 350,000 civilians from Smyrna, and a further 1.2 million civilians from Turkey’s western coastal regions, from dire peril.

Many Smyrniot Greek families ended up in Australia, Canada and the United States, as life in the refugee camps of Athens offered no prospect for advancement.

Georgia’s link with Smyrna, Saint Tevdore, had an interesting history as a crypto-Christian in Ottoman-occupied Ajara and a refugee to Christian-majority Smyrna, the largest Christian city in Asia at the time.

Holy Hieromartyr Theodore of Ajara belongs to the glorious multitude of Ajaran faithful who were martyred at the hands of the Ottomans.
St. Theodore was born in the late 18th century. At that time the Ottoman invaders had nearly completed the forced Islamization of the Ajaran region. They had already annihilated those who resisted the conversion and were beginning to evict those who, in spite of their apparent acceptance of Islam, continued to “arouse suspicions.” Some abandoned their native region and fled to foreign lands.

St. Theodore was born to a family that had been forced into exile. From his childhood he watched his fellow countrymen, who had been forcibly converted to Islam, secretly retain their Christian way of life. It is unclear how the saint’s family settled in Trebizond (modern Trabzon). It is known, however, that St. Theodore managed to free himself from Islam, receive Christianity, and find refuge at a Georgian monastery in Smyrna (now Izmir). There he was tonsured a monk and later raised to the rank of proigoumenos (deputy abbot). It is also known that St. Theodore converted his nephew to Christianity during that time.

In 1822 St. Theodore set out on a pilgrimage to Mt. Athos. But at the same time the Ottomans were attempting to crush the Greek independence movement, and the Holy Mountain was surrounded by Ottoman soldiers. They captured the faithful pilgrim and killed him. Then they tossed the holy martyr’s body into the sea.

The Holy Synod of the Georgian Apostolic Orthodox Church canonized Holy Martyr Theodore on October 17, 2002.

© 2006 “The Lives of the Georgian Saints” by Father Zacharaiah Machitadze, St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood.

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