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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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Following the commemoration of Saints George and Sava of Kakhuli, today we remember another saint of the same period and region, Saint Macarios, known as “The Faster” because of his ascetic zeal. He was known to have powers of prophecy and he attracted many people from all over Tao-Klarjeti as his spiritual children.

From “Lives of the Georgian Saints” by Archpriest Zacharia Machitadze

 In the second half of the 10th century King Davit Kuropalates constructed the Khakhuli Church in southern Georgia. He also founded Khakhuli Monastery, which in later centuries would become a center of spirituality, science, and education. Today this monastery is located on Turkish territory, but the grace of the ascetic labors of the fathers who labored there in the past pours forth hope upon the Georgian people to this day.

Many holy and wonder-working fathers labored at Khakhuli Monastery, including St. Basil the son of King Bagrat III, the brothers George and Saba of Khakhuli, St. Hilarion of Tvali and many other God-fearing ascetics, whose righteousness and spiritual feats were guided by the holy abbot Macarios.

Fr. Macarios was a great ascetic, teacher, and prophet. Novices and wise, experienced elders alike flocked to him for advice and blessings. The young monk George, later the great ascetic George of the Holy Mountain, was brought to St. Macarios to receive his blessing. St. Macarios called George his spiritual son.

By the grace of God, St. Macarios reconciled his responsibilities as abbot of the monastery with the great spiritual labor of solitude. He earned the title “the Faster” for his exceptional ascesis in fasting and prayer. It is said that, as abbot of Khakhuli Monastery, “he shone like the morning sunrise and guided the spiritual activity and secular life of the entire Tao-Klarjeti region.  St. Macarios reposed around the year 1034.

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A Happy New Year to all!  Today, January 1 according to the Gregorian Calender, marks an interesting discrepancy between the Churches of following the Gregorian Calender and those following the Julian. For the Churches of Greece, Constantinople, Romania and the Levant, today is a dual feast, that of the Circumcision of Our Lord , and the Commemoration of one of the most important Fathers of the Church, Saint Basil the Great. So parishes in these jurisdictions often have a New Year’s Day liturgy celebrating these events and share Vasilopita (“Saint Basil’s Pie”) as a treat afterwards.

In Georgia, January 1 according to the Julian calender is still a fortnight away. An Oekonomia (dispensation) is granted by the Patriarch for a relaxation of the Nativity fasting for some modest festivities on New Year’s Eve. On New Year’s Day, two eminent saints are commemorated, Saints Giorgi and Sava of Khakhuli, from what is now Turkey’s Erzurum region.

The history of the Georgian territories of Tao and Klarjeti has been intriguing me lately. These coastal and mountainous regions in northeastern Turkey were once the heartland of Georgian liturgical and artistic brilliance, to the extent that acolytes from as far as Kartli and Kakheti would travel there for instruction.

David III Kuropalates, Prince of Tao, was a relative of the Bagrationi dynasty of Kartli. Inheriting the small territory of Southern Tao in 966, he developed a well-organised military force and fostered the Church in his domain, Following his assistance of Byzantine Emperor Basil in the Battle of Pankalia, he was granted the imperial title “Kuropalates” and granted extensive tracts of land in Eastern Anatolia, inhabited by Armenians, Greeks and Georgians. This consolidated territory from the Black Sea to Central Eastern Anatolia made him one of the powerful rulers in the Caucasus.

David III continued the work of his predecessor Holy King Ashot the Great as a patron and protector of the Church, and established the Khakhuli Monastery, which was one of Georgia’s greatest centres of learning in the Middle Ages. The monastery now regrettably functions as a mosque.

King David’s nephew and stepson Bagrat III Kuropalates eventually became the first Monarch of a United Georgia, incorporating all the regions of today’s Georgia as well as Tao-Klarjeti, Shavsheti, Meskheti, and Javakheti into what was to be known as Sakartvelo – “all-Georgia”. Hence, when the Patriarch is known as “Patriarch-Catholicos of All-Georgia”, it affirms his authority over the Church in all those regions, even when national sovereignty over those regions has been lost.

Well known for his construction of the Bagrat Cathedral in Kutaisi, King Bagrat III continued his patronage of the great monasteries of Tao-Klarjeti including Khakhuli Monastery.

He requested that Saint Giorgi of Khakhuli become his Spiritual Father, and became the patron of Saint Giorgi’s prodigious liturgical works, including essays and encyclicals that remain influential in Orthodox theology today. Saint Giorgi’s younger brother Saint Sava was remembered as a devout and upright person who laboured diligently  as a monk at Khakhuli Monastery.

King Bagrat III at one time seconded Saint Giorgi as spiritual advisor to his son-in-law Peris Jojikisdze, a minor nobleman of Trialeti. Unfortunately this noblemen fell foul of court intrigues in Constantinople and was executed by the Emperor, and his family and entire retinue were detained in Constantinople for twelve years. Saint Giorgi eventually returned to Khakhuli with his nephew, who went on to become Saint George of Mount Athos.

Georgia’s “Golden Age” under Bagrat III is attributed in no small part to the spiritual guidance the Court received, and the flourishing of ecclesiastical literature, music and artwork during his reign was remarkable.

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As the Georgian regions of Tao-Klarjeti and Lazeti were under Ottoman occupation for many centuries, and are now part of the Republic of Turkey, much of the religious heritage and folklore of these regions has been lost. Nonetheless, the Church commemorates the memory of the evangelists, saints and martyrs of these regions, even though the population has since been converted to Islam.

Our Holy Father Grigol of Khandzta was raised in the court of the Kartlian ruler Nerse. His family was part of the Meskhetian aristocracy. He received an education befitting his family’s noble rank and displayed a special aptitude for the sciences and theology.

The youth chosen by God was extraordinarily dedicated to his studies. In a short time he memorized the Psalms and familiarized himself with the doctrines of the Church. He also learned several languages and knew many theological works by heart.

While Grigol was still young, his loved ones expressed a wish to see him enter the priesthood. The wise youth had aspired to the spiritual life from early on, but he considered himself unprepared to bear such an enormous responsibility. “My pride prevents me from fulfilling your desire,” he told them.

Finally he consented to be ordained a priest, but the local princes sought to consecrate him a bishop. Frightened at the prospect, Grigol secretly fled to southwestern Georgia with three like-minded companions: his cousin Saba (a future bishop and the reviver of Ishkhani Monastery), Theodore (the builder of Nedzvi [Akhaldaba] Monastery), and Christopher (the builder of the Dviri Monastery of St. Cyricus). The four brothers were unified by faith and love of God and bound by a single desire, as though they were one soul existing in four bodies.

The brothers arrived at the Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Opiza and presented themselves before the abbot Giorgi. With his blessing they labored there for two years. Then St. Grigol visited the monk Khvedios, the righteous hermit of Khandzta. Prior to Grigol’s arrival, Khvedios had received a sign from God indicating that a monastery would be built in Khandzta by the hands of the priest Grigol. It was revealed to him that Fr. Grigol’s prayers were so holy that their sweet-smelling fragrance rose up before God like incense. The monk showed St. Grigol the environs, and he was so drawn to this area that he soon returned there with the other brothers and began to build a monastery.

The monks were forced to construct the monastery in difficult conditions, since the earth was rocky and mountainous and they were not equipped with the proper tools. First they built a wooden church, and later four cells and a dining hall.

A certain aristocrat by the name of Gabriel Dapanchuli lived nearby, and Grigol turned to him for help with construction of the monastery. With great joy he donated the stone, labor and food necessary for this worthy project to be realized. In such a way the first monastery church in Khandzta was established.

Gabriel informed Holy King Ashot Kuropalates about the brothers’ activity, and the king invited their leader, St. Grigol, to the palace.

There he received him with great honor, asked him to bless the royal family, and inquired in detail about the life and labors of the holy monks. Then he presented Grigol with a generous donation to the monastery and, having learned that the land in Khandzta could not be cultivated, bestowed upon the monastery a large plot of fertile land in Shatberdi. King Ashot’s sons, the princes Adarnerse, Bagrat, and Guaram, also donated generously to the monastery.

So, during the bloody Arab-Muslim period of rule, when the Georgian people had sunk into deep despair, the Klarjeti Wilderness was transformed into a life-giving oasis to which the greatest sons of the nation flocked.

The rules of the monastery were strict. In each monk’s cell was nothing but a short, stiff bed and a small pitcher for water. Neither fires nor candles were lit inside.

St. Grigol was known throughout all of Georgia. At the request of King Demetre II of Abkhazeti (837–872), Fr. Grigol built a monastery in the village of Ubisi in Imereti and appointed his disciple Ilarion of Jerusalem as abbot. He built this monastery on the border of western and eastern Georgia and in so doing foresaw the unification of the two kingdoms.

The Lord performed many miracles through St. Grigoly. Once the church bell-ringer was approaching the abbot’s cell and saw a light issuing forth from inside. He knew that St. Grigol had lit neither a fire nor his oil lamp, and he became frightened, believing that a fire might have started in the abbot’s cell. As it turned out, others had witnessed similar wonders: when the saint stood praying, he would light up like the sun, and beams of light would emanate from his body in the shape of a cross.

Venerable Grigol stood firmly in defense of morality, and he even confronted King Ashot Kuropalates when his conduct was at odds with the values of the Georgian people. Grigol had united his companions in their love of God, but among the roses there appeared a thorn. A certain Tskir, a protege of the Tbilisi emir Sahak, schemed to obtain the episocopal see of Anchi.

He forcibly took control of Anchi Cathedral and committed many blasphemies. The clergy, and venerable Grigol in particular, condemned his behavior, but Tskir was consumed by pride and hired a killer to eliminate St. Grigol. Like a prophet, St. Grigol foresaw the imminent danger but went out to meet it nevertheless. Approaching his victim, while still at a distance from him, the murderer saw a bright light enveloping the holy father. He froze in fear, and his hand immediately withered. Only the prayers of St. Grigol could heal him and permit him to return home.

The Church excommunicated Tskir, and he fled to the emir for refuge. With Sahak’s help he returned to the throne of Anchi and sent a military detachment to destroy Khandzta Monastery.

The monks of Khandzta and their abbot met the attackers in meekness and requested time to celebrate the Sunday Liturgy. The whole brotherhood prayed tearfully to the Lord to save the monastery.

The Liturgy had not yet been completed when a messenger arrived from Anchi to report that Tskir had died suddenly.

Near the end of his life St. Grigol spent most of his time at Shatberdi Monastery, which he himself had built. When he received a sign that his death was approaching, he distributed candles throughout all the monasteries in the Klarjeti Wilderness and requested that they be burned on the day of his death. He asked all to remember him and bade farewell to Khandzta.

On the day of his repose, holy fathers from all over Klarjeti gathered to receive a final blessing from their teacher. Grigol blessed them, admonished them for the last time, and gave up his soul to God. When he breathed his last, a voice was heard from heaven, calling him: “Do not be afraid to come, O Venerable Servant of Christ, for Christ, the King of heaven, has Himself anointed you an earthly angel and a heavenly man. Now come and approach thy Lord with great joy and prepare for exaltation, for you are blessed among the saints and your everlasting glory has been prepared!”

Abounding in blessings and perfect in wisdom, justly ruling the inhabitants of the wilderness, St. Grigol of Khandzta reposed on October 5, 861, at the age of 102. In accordance with his will, he was buried among his brothers at Khandzta Monastery.

From “Lives of the Georgian Saints” Archpriest Zakaria Machitadze

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The relationship between the Orthodox Church and the modern Turkish State is a complicated one. With the exception of the churches domiciled in the former Russian Empire, most Patriarchates came under the control of the Ottoman Empire between the 15th-19th centuries, including Constantinople, Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, Jerusalem, Antioch and the southwestern part of Georgia.

The experience of Orthodox Christians at the hands of Ottoman officialdom in these occupied territories was a mixed one, consisting of periods of unrelenting pressure to convert to Islam and martyrdom for those who resisted, to periods of reasonable tolerance and calm. Unfortunately, Turkey’s laws against the denigration of Turkishness make it a dangerous activity to suggest that treatment of Christians in the Ottoman Empire was anything less than exemplary.

After the fall of the Roman Empire in Constantinople in 1453, and the surrender of Trebizond (Trabzon in Turkish) to the Ottomans in 1461, the Ottomans decided to allocate responsibility for all Orthodox Christians in the Empire to the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople. This followed the medievel Turkish concept of dividing its realms up into millet or ethnic groups (The Patriarch of Constantinople was designated as the head of the Orthodox Christian millet), and also followed the established concept in post 1054-Christendom of the Ecumenical Patriarch being “first among equals” of the archbishops in the Eastern Christian world.

The city of Trebizond was a Greek trading colony on the Black Sea, surrounded by a rural population of hundreds of thousands of Laz Georgians, and small populations of Armenians, Europeans and other foreign traders. After the Ottoman conquest, Christian Laz converted to Islam (no doubt some by choice to avoid persecution or taxation, but many martyrdoms of the Laz are documented and commemorated by the Georgian Church) or fled to Georgia. There are many Georgians today with Laz surnames whose ancestors emigrated to Ajara, Kutaisi, Tbilisi or Kakheti between 1461 and 1918. The Pontic Greeks of Trebizond for the most part stayed where they were, and while some converted to Islam, it is believed that most remained faithful.

The decision of the Ottoman government to side with the Central Powers in the Great War was a tragic one; had they sided with the Allies, the Ottoman Empire could have quietly divested itself of its more restive provinces, reformed its governance and worked out an amicable settlement with its sizeable Christian community for mutual benefit. The British and French governments had long-standing amicable relationships with the Sublime Porte and had sacrificed masses of young men on the Crimea in support of the Ottomans against Russia in the Crimean War not long beforehand. By Turkey siding against Moscow, it provided Russia with ample opportunity to stir up trouble amongst the Empire’s Greek, Armenian and Assyrian subjects to weaken the Ottoman war effort.

The result of Moscow’s attack on the Empire’s northern flank was a multitude of revolts amongst the Christian population of the Empire, as well as some disgraceful and deadly anti-Muslim pogroms initiated by Christians against their Muslim neighbours. The response from the Young Turk government was swift and brutal; massacres, forced deportations and mass starvation were imposed en masse upon Pontic Greek, Armenian and Assyrian populations in Anatolia and beyond.

Many Pontic Greeks fled persecution to the Russian Empire, mostly to Georgia, and some then moved to join distant relatives in the Crimea or in Moscow. Others emigrated to the Kingdom of Greece. In Georgia, there are sizeable Pontic Greek populations in Poti, Sukhumi, Tbilisi and Rustavi. Previously, there were also many in Marneuli in Kvemo Kartli.

Those Pontic Greeks who fled Trebizond  left behind a fully functioning Greek city, with sophisticated residential districts, theatres, trading houses, banks, warehouses, and Greek and Armenian churches, with scores of 10th-15th century Georgian churches in the surrounding hinterland.

The attempt by the Greek Venizelist government in 1919 to drive the Turks out of coastal Turkey and recolonise Eastern Thrace and coastal Anatolia as Greek homelands failed. Of course, like any people subjected to a serious attempt at ethnic cleansing, the Turks still bear a significant grudge against the Greeks because of this attempt. While the Megali Idea is dead amongst Greek people, the fear of it lives on amongst many Turks.

As a result, historic Greek buildings in Turkey, instead of being seen as an important part of Turkey’s history and hallmarks of the indigenous civilisation that flourished in Anatolia for more than 1000 years before the Turks left Siberia, they are seen by some as “enemy architecture” that should either be demolished or converted to mosques.

Under previous secular-nationalist governments in Turkey, all religious groups were held in contempt by the State. Oddly enough it took the election of an Islamic party to government for State-Church relations to improve. Recent permission for Armenian clerics and Constantinople clerics to celebrate liturgies in decommissioned Armenian and Greek churches in Turkey’s East has been seen as a major step forward for Christianity being recognised as a normal part of the fabric of Turkish life that poses no threat to the Turkish state.

Despite these advances, there are still difficulties, such as this case where some local activists wish to convert a Greek church into a mosque (its current status is as a museum). Of course the Ecumenical Patriarchate would prefer it to remain as a museum rather than as a mosque, as it still no doubt holds onto the hope that one day the church will be reconsecrated and used by an indigenous Christian community, perhaps supplemented by people returning to their ancestral home from abroad.

The Georgian Church also has grave concerns for decommissioned Georgian churches in Tao-Klarjeti and Lazeti regions of eastern Turkey, which are crumbling or being vandalised. While we may hope that these churches may be reconsecrated and used to baptise new Christians from Turkey’s Laz population (or even their Turk neighbours) one day, a more immediate concern is preserving these ancient churches from collapse. Unfortunately, the Georgian Patriarchate’s channels of communication with the Turkish government are limited at this time. It is to be hoped that dialogue and mutual understanding can be further developed with time.

Bartholomew I: Do not transform Hagia Sophia in Trabzon into a mosque

by NAT da Polis

The Ecumenical Patriarch is opposed to the proposal of the Vice-President Bulent Arinc because there is “no need” for worship. Bartholomew is also supported by the head of the Muslim community, who points out the many mosques, which remain largely empty. Regarding minorities, the government is Turkish makes “one step forward, one step back.” Anti-conformist sentiments on the up.

Trabzon (AsiaNews) – There is “no need” to transform the ancient church of Aghia Sophia in Trabzon into a mosque, it is better that it remains a museum open to all religions: Bartholomew I, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, expressed with clarity his opposition to the idea supported by the Deputy Turkish Prime Minister, Bulent Arinc who would like to turn this monument of Christianity in an exclusive place of worship for Muslims.

The church of Aghia Sofia (Saint Sofia) is a gem of ancient architecture and dates back to the era of the Comnenus Emperors (1204-1461). It testifies to the ancient presence of Christians of Pontus on the Black Sea, wiped out as a result of various genocides and purges first by the Ottomans, then by the neo-Turks.

Yesterday, the Ecumenical Patriarch visited the church and met with the mayor of the city, Genc. In front of reporters, Bartholomew said: “We respect all mosques and all places of worship, but in this case – turning Hagia Sophia into a mosque – I see no need for worship.”

He added. “We are in favor of maintaining the church of Hagia Sophia as a museum. Moreover, as stated by the head of the local [Islamic] community [here] there are already many mosques to meet the needs for worship of the faithful, and they remain largely partially empty. “

The Patriarch recalled the recent statements by the President of the Muslim community of the place, Zeki Baytar who reacted strongly to the Arinc proposal, even threatening a revolt, and said: “First we must fill the mosques, then, if necessary, transform Saint Sophia into a mosque.”

“If Hagia Sophia in Trabzon is converted into a mosque – continues Bartholomew I – it will be made available only to our Muslim brothers. Conversely, if it remains as a museum, it can offer its services to the entire international community, with sizeable profits for its inhabitants.”

Among the journalists present, many remember the words of the same Bulent Arinc during his visit to the Phanar – the seat of the patriarchate – in January 2011: “As a government we have a duty to meet the needs of these citizens who have a centuries old presence in these lands.”

Therefore, the position of the Ecumenical Patriarch is hardly surprising. What is of wonder however, is the Turkish government policy towards minorities of “one step forward, one step back”, depending on the circumstances and political conjunctures. Precisely for this reason anti-conformist courageous groups voicing anti-conformist sentiments are on the increase in Turkey.

Trabzon, in the far north-east of Turkey, is inhabited by a population of almost 300 thousand inhabitants. Of these few are Christians.

TURKEY Bartholomew I: Do not transform Hagia Sophia in Trabzon into a mosque – Asia News.

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