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Last Sunday was Forgiveness Sunday, the last Sunday before the season of Great Lent. In order to avoid hypocrisy or lingering resentment at a time when we should be focussed upon prayer, Christians are advised to make their peace with those whom they are in dispute, and any tensions between lay people and their spiritual fathers are to be resolved before Great Lent begins.

Despite the many difficulties experienced in Georgia currently with a weakening economy and regional tensions, we are fortunate that we can go about our daily lives peacefully and unmolested for the most part. Regrettably this is not the case in many parts of our immediate neighbourhood. Conflict in Eastern Ukraine between people of the same faith and in some cases from the same towns and neighbourhoods is a great tragedy that may take decades to heal.

Only a few hundred kilometres away, Islamic State terrorists in recent days have kidnapped several hundred Assyrian Christians in Syria; such actions in the past have generally ended with martyrdom of the captives. Assyrians are a people native to Syria, Iraq, Iran and south-eastern Turkey, whose presence in the region predates the Arab conquest by millennia. Assyrians typically belong to various churches in communion with Rome, or to Oriental Orthodox communities (in communion with the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church), or to the Church of the East (a Nestorian church). The so-called Syrian Fathers of the Georgian Church were most likely Orthodox monastics from this nationality.

The genocide of the Ottoman Empire’s Christians in 1915, resulting in the mass deaths of Greeks, Armenians and Assyrians throughout the empire, resulted in many survivors fleeing to the Russian Empire as refugees. Many of Georgia’s Armenian, Greek and Assyrian people can trace their ancestries to such refugees; this short documentary explains the perambulation of one persecuted Assyrian community from Turkey to Iran to Georgia during the First World War.

Greek villages in Kvemo Kartli’s Tsalka district and the Assyrian village of Dzveli Kanda in Mtskheta-Mtianeti region are populated with the descendants of such refugees, and Armenian communities in Samtskhe-Javakheti, Kvemo Kartli, Shida Kartli and Tbilisi have many ancestors who fled from Turkey in 1915.

With the 100th anniversary of a genocide of the Ottoman Empire’s Christian citizens approaching in late April, tensions are running high between the Turkish government, which claims that no genocide happened or that it was hugely exaggerated, and descendants of the victims, Greek, Armenian and Assyrian, seeking acknowledgement and contrition. No likely agreement is in sight and bitter feelings on both sides are likely to persist for some time; forgiveness is difficult to give if the counterparty expresses no contrition. That being said, sometimes such gestures of contrition are offered at times and places when least expected. This very well written story by an Armenian-American journalist combines interviews with a Kurdish mayor of a small town in southeastern Turkey, trying to make amends for the murders of Armenians that his community’s ancestors committed, and the author’s family history associated with the same small town.

Most of us would have recently seen excerpts of chilling footage of the murder of 21 Coptic Christians on a beach in Libya by Islamic State terrorists. Anger, resentment, hatred and a desire for revenge would be natural emotions for the families of the victims to endure. While no doubt the families would be enduring tremendous grief at losing their loved ones, the brother of two of the victims, speaking on talkback radio in Egypt, amazes all who listen to him by blessing those who killed his brothers and praying for their salvation.

While we may be frustrated with day-to-day conflicts and harbour ill-feeling for those we feel treat us with contempt or disrespect, we could all afford to put our concerns into perspective and consider the example of forgiveness and compassion set by the mother of the two Coptic martyrs of Libya. The courage and steadfastness shown by the martyrs should also be an inspiration to us.

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Today is the second Sunday of the pre-Lenten period, with Meatfare Sunday (the last day of meat consumption before Pascha) falling next Sunday. Following from last week’s theme of repentance and forgiveness, the theme of today is the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

According to the Gospel of Saint Luke (Luke 15:11-32),

“11 And he said, A certain man had two sons: 12 and the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living.13 And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living. 14 And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want. 15 And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine.16 And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him. 17 And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! 18 I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee,19 and am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants.20 And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him. 21 And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son. 22 But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: 23 and bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry: 24 for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry.

25 Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard musick and dancing. 26 And he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant. 27 And he said unto him, Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound. 28 And he was angry, and would not go in: therefore came his father out, and intreated him. 29 And he answering said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends: 30 but as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf. 31 And he said unto him, Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine. 32 It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.”

The simplest interpretation of this is for Christians to imagine themselves as foreigners in a distant land, far from their Father’s house and full of regret for their reckless and disobedient conduct. Through the Lenten period, we are to engage in metanoia (repentance or “change of mind”) and to follow the long and winding road back to God where we belong. The parable assures us that our repentant return home will be greeted with joy by the Father, not justified by our worthy acts but through God’s forgiveness and love. One can think of “the Father’s House” as being salvation and reunification with God. The prodigal chose to walk away from salvation by his own free will and to live foolishly and sinfully, and by his own free will he resolved to repent, to return home and to live humbly under the authority of his Father’s will. Concurrently, the elder brother, by removing himself from the household out of resentment at the favourable treatment the prodigal son received, at least temporarily has removed himself from salvation and God’s presence.

The iconography associated with this parable is very well discussed here

In the Georgian context, it is worthwhile considering how we, as individuals or as a Church, fit into the framework of this parable. Over three-quarters of the Georgian population now declare themselves to be Orthodox Christians. It is worth noting that, to avoid persecution and to improve career prospects, many of today’s Georgian Christians were Communist Party members or Komsomol members in the Soviet era, and openly repudiated organised religion in general or Christ in particular, not unlike Saint Peter repudiating Christ in Jerusalem on the day of Christ’s crucifixion. Upon sincere demonstration of contrition and metanoia, the Church has joyfully received its former enemies into its midst as brothers and sisters in Christ. This is in the glorious tradition of the Early Church Fathers who joyfully baptised the same Roman troops and civil administrators who had previously persecuted them.

Having been accepted “back home” into God’s house, it is imperative for Christians in Georgia to remember the grace that has been bestowed upon them when considering how to deal with the other peoples of the region. The histories of the Georgian and Armenian peoples have been intertwined for millennia, sometimes competitive, sometimes co-operative, but despite the schism over the Council of Chalcedon, it is important for these two peoples to see each other as brothers and sisters in Christ with some outstanding disagreements, rather than as intractable antagonists. Thousands of Coptic Christians have settled in Georgia, fleeing religious persecution in their homeland, but the welcome they have received from Georgian Orthodox parishes when seeking to pray in the temple has often been less than effusive. Some wonderful opportunities to embrace new arrivals or long-standing ethnic minorities as brothers and sisters in Christ, to baptise or chrismate them, and to gently integrate them into Georgian society, have sadly been lost, with some people behaving like the prodigal son’s older brother, filled with anger and resentment when schismatics seek to return home.

At various times in history, many of the people of the North Caucasus, Iran, Azerbaijan, and Turkey had accepted baptism and were vigourous members of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. Georgian missionaries played no small part in this, using their God-given abilities as orators, teachers and healers to bring the word of God to these regions, and many gave their lives to enlighten these neighbouring peoples, whom they viewed as being equally worthy of salvation as their own people. It is a mark of contempt for these great Georgian evangelists that some people today, claiming to speak for the Church, seek to denigrate or insult neighbouring people of different religions or races simply because they are not Kartvelian.  

Many Muslims from neighbouring countries had Christian ancestors who were forced into apostasy under threat of torture or execution.  I have discussed before the Christian civilisation of the Caucasian Albanians of Azerbaijan, the Christian communities established by Georgian missionaries in Ossetia and Daghestan, and the hundreds of thousands of Christians who inhabited every major town and city in the Persian Empire in the past. Many Muslims from the region are curious about Christianity and are very open to discussing our religion, and not a few are willing to apostasise themselves from Islam and accept Christian baptism when dealt with kindly. When confronted with a person considering “returning home” to the Church, even from a nationality or faith that some consider to be an intractable enemy of the Georgian Church, it is important to consider that we all have been welcomed home by our Father through His grace rather than our own virtue. To reject our neighbours’ sincere approaches places us, rather unfavourably, in the role of the elder brother of the prodigal son. Unlike the elder brother, many of us in the past were in open opposition to God’s Church in Georgia; while the elder brother could with some justification say “Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment”, there are precious few of us here can truthfully say the same.

For those still in two minds on this issue, one can direct them to the will of the Holy Spirit as expressed in Saint Peter’s vision in Acts 10.

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As our brothers and sisters from the Orthodox communities of the Greek Diaspora, and our Romanian friends, prepare to celebrate Christmas tonight, and we in Georgia prepare for the Feast of the Nativity on January 7, we should pray for our fellow Christians in Syria who are facing persecution and martyrdom for their faith at the hands of Jihadists. Home to Christian communities from Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Melkite and Assyrian Catholic, Nestorian and Protestant congregations, over 2.5 million Christians face a very uncertain future in the geographic cradle of the Christian faith.  The connection between Syria and Georgia is significant, as the Thirteen Assyrian Fathers were very significant evangelists to the Georgians during the Persian occupation of Georgia in the 6th century, and are widely venerated today for their energy in establishing new temples and monastic centres while Georgia was governed by Zoroastrians hostile to the Christian faith.

Armenia has been resettling many Syrians of Armenian descent in Yerevan as refugees, but in Georgia most Syrians living here are business migrants rather than refugees. Georgia being well acquainted with the horrors of war and internal displacement of innocent people, it is to be hoped that Immigration officials are not overzealous in excluding Christian families seeking temporary respite here.

This press release from the Syriac Orthodox Metropolitan of Homs and Hama, Mor Selwanos Boutros Alnemeh, documents the largest massacre of Christians in the Middle East of the past decade, and the near-destruction of their village. The Syriac Orthodox Church is of the Oriental Orthodox Community, in communion with the Coptic, Ethiopian and Armenian churches. Please keep these people in your prayers as you enjoy your Christmas festivities.

Devastating Images & Report from the Christian Town of Sadad in Syria – Exclusive - News | Orthodoxy Cognate PAGE

My brothers and sisters

The peace of the Lord be with you:

I present to you a glimpse of the events which have overtaken Sadad over the weeks since its occupation by armed men and terrorists.

1- Sadad is a small Syriac town of 15,000 people located 160 km from Damascus

2- It has 14 churches and a monastery with four priests and five halls for social activities and celebrations.

3- Most citizens are poor, because of the lack of natural resources

4- They live in the middle of the desert, and it is a harsh, dry climate, where no rain falls..

5- The number of families which immigrated to Sadad from the different villages and provinces, owning to the Syrian crisis, is 600.

6- The terrorists entered Sadad on 21-10-2013 and occupied it for a week.  On 28-10-2013 they were driven out and some of them were killed.

7- 2,500 families fled Sadad because of this occupation by the terrorists. They spread out between Damascus, Homs, Fayrouza, Zaydal, Maskane, and al-Fhayle.

8-  1,500 families were held as hostages and human shields for a week, amongst them children, old men, young men, and women.  Some of them fled, walking 8 km from Sadad to al-Hafer to find refuge.

9-  Some were killed and some were threatened by the bullet, by strangulation, execution and with the destruction of their houses. 45 civilians were martyred including women, children and men.

Devastating Images & Report from the Christian Town of Sadad in Syria – Exclusive - News | Orthodoxy Cognate PAGE

10 – 10 persons have gone missing, and the number of injured is 30

11-All the homes of Sadad have been robbed, their possessions looted, by all the forces which entered Sadad.  The commercial premises shared the same fate.

12- They destroyed the churches and stole some of their possessions, money and ancient books, and graphitized insults  against Christianity.

All government, school, and council buildings were destroyed, along with the post office, the hospital and clinic, as well as  the Finance and the Agricultural Ministry branches.

14- The crisis in Sadad led to the forced migration of some 500 families of al-Hafer, and the looting and destruction of some of their houses.

15- The families of Sadad fled from their town only in the clothes they were wearing, and anyone who brought with him money, gold or documents was robbed of them.

16- Our children have lost their future because of the destruction of the schools, the nursery, and the youth centre.

Photographs of the devastation done can be seen here via Devastating Images & Report from the Christian Town of Sadad in Syria – Exclusive – News | Orthodoxy Cognate PAGE.

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Georgia’s neighbouring country to the south and east, Azerbaijan, is known to most people as a Turkish-speaking region of Iran wrested from Persian control by the Russian Empire in the 19th century. It is not commonly known that for many centuries an indigenous Christian nation existed in Azerbaijan until it was eventually overwhelmed by Persians from the east and Armenians from the west. This country was known as Caucasian Albania (to distinguish it from the Albania in the Balkans).

Caucasian Albanian tribes spoke a number of East Caucasian languages and are believed to be related to the Lezgins of the North Caucasus. The only remaining tribe who identify as having this ancestry are the Udi; the ancient Caucasian Albanian capital cities of Qabala and Barda were located within the Udi domain, which stretched from the Caspian Sea to the borders of Georgian Iberia. The village of Zinobiani, near Kakheti’s Kvareli town, was settled with Udi refugees from Azerbaijan in 1922 and these families still live there. The Caucasian Albanian tribes of Hers were incorporated into the Georgian state in the 5th century and assimilated by the Kakhetians; the resulting Hereti region makes up most of current-day eastern Kakheti including the Shiraki region.

The Apostle Bartholomew is reputed to have evangelised the Caucasian Albanians. He is believed to have proselytised throughout Caucasian Albania, and to have converted members of the royal family to Christianity in Baku. He was martyred on the orders of the pagan King Astyages by crucifixion, and his relics later transported to Mesapotamia.

The Church was definitively established by the 1st century missionary Saint Elisaeus, who proselytised throughout Caucasian Albania and Persia, and he established the first Christian temple in the Caucasus, in Kis. In 313 the Caucasian Albanian King Urnayr declared Orthodox Christianity to be the State Religion of Caucasian Albania, predating King Mirian of Iberia’s declaration of Iberia as Christian nation in 337.

King Urnayr was baptised by Catholicos Gregory I of Armenia, and hence the Church of Caucasian Albania has had a close relationship with the Armenian Apostolic Church over the years. While at times it has declared its autocephaly, at other times it was considered subordinate to the Armenian Catholicosate.

Many churches were built throughout Caucasian Albania, but unfortunately time and the attention of Muslim marauders over the past 1300 years have destroyed most of them.  The Church of Kis, built in a Georgian style in the 13th century, is the best preserved, having been renovated in 2003.

Given that much of Caucasian Albania was under the control of Georgia during the reign of Queen Tamar, it is not surprising that Georgian architectural influences are seen here. The original church of this village was built by Saint Elisaeus in the 1st century.

The Caucasian Albanian Church was caught up in the controversy of the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon, which it rejected, and so over the years it has been more closely affiliated with the Armenian Apostolic Church than with the Eastern Orthodox communion. The Russian imperial government encouraged this affiliation and discouraged autocephalous movements. In recent years, the remaining Udi Christians of Azerbaijan have repudiated their affiliation with the Church of Armenia and have registered with the Azerbaijan government as the Caucasian Albanian-Udi Christian Community. Reportedly, several Udi men are training in Russian seminaries as priests, so it is quite possible that the Caucasian Albanian Church will return to the Eastern Orthodox communion, as it was prior  to 451, and during Georgia’s “Golden Age” when Georgia controlled the region.

On August 5th, the Community celebrated the 1700th anniversary of their Church as an established state church, and explained to the media the history of their people, and the ongoing renovation efforts for their temples in the village of Nij.

For a scholarly review of the Church in Caucasian Albania by an Azeri Academic, read here.

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Today is a busy day for the Georgian Church. In addition to commemorations for Holy King Vakhtang and the Apostle Andrew, the first two Catholicoi of the Autocephalous Georgian Church are commemorated today.

Catholicos is a Greek word (καθολικός ,plural καθολικοί, meaning ‘universal,’ or ‘general.’) and in the early days of the Patriarchate of Antioch, the term was used as the title of bishops under its authority, including that of Georgia. The title was also used by the Church of the East which split from Antioch, and by the non-Chalcedonian Church of Armenia, and continues to be used by those jurisdictions. The Patriarch of Georgia is currently styled as the “Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia” and is the only Eastern Orthodox patriarch to bear that title.

From “Lives of the Georgian Saints”

SAINT PETER

Saint Peter was the first Catholicos of Georgia. He led the Church of Kartli from the 460s through the beginning of the 6th century. According to God’s will, St. Peter inaugurated the dynasty of the chief shepherds of Georgia.

It is written in the biography of Holy King Vakhtang IV Gorgasali that the king was introduced to Peter, a pupil of St. Gregory the Theologian, during one of his visits to Byzantium, and he became very close to him. At that time he was also introduced to the future Catholicos Samuel.

The close spiritual bond of the holy king and the Catholicos, combined with their concerted efforts on behalf of the Church, contributed immeasurably to the establishment of friendly political relations between Georgia and Byzantium and the proclamation of the autocephaly of the Georgian Apostolic Church.

Having returned to his own capital, King Vakhtang sent an envoy to Byzantium to find him a wife. He also sent a request that the hierarch Peter be elevated as catholicos and that the priest Samuel be consecrated bishop. He pleaded with the patriarch to hasten the arrival of Catholicos Peter and the twelve bishops with him.

The Patriarch of Constantinople approved King Vakhtang’s request to institute the rank of Catholicos of Georgia. Since the Georgian Church was still under the jurisdiction of Antioch, Peter and Samuel were sent to the Antiochian patriarch himself to be elevated. The autocephaly of the Georgian Church was proclaimed upon the arrival of the holy fathers in Georgia.

St. Peter ruled the Church according to the principle of autocephaly and established a form of self-rule that would later help to increase the authority of the Georgian Apostolic Orthodox Church.

The mutual respect and cooperation of the Catholicos and the holy king laid the foundations for future, harmonious relations between secular and Church authorities in Georgia. Their example defined the authority of the Church and a national love and respect for the king.

Peter accompanied Holy King Vakhtang Gorgasali to war with the Persians in 502. It is written that “the fatally wounded king Vakhtang summoned the catholicos, the queen, his sons and all the nobility.” St. Peter heard the king’s last confession, granted the remission of his sins, presided at his funeral service, and blessed the prince Dachi (502–514) to succeed him as king of Kartli.

Holy Catholicos Peter led the Georgian Church with great wisdom to the end of his days.

 

SAINT SAMEUL

St. Samuel ascended the throne of the Apostolic Orthodox Church of Georgia in the 6th century, after the holy Catholicos Peter.

Like St. Peter, Samuel was a native of Byzantium. He arrived with Catholicos Peter in Georgia as a bishop, at the invitation of King Vakhtang Gorgasali and with the blessing of the patriarch of Constantinople.

At that time Svetitskhoveli in Mtskheta was the residence of the Catholicos.


St. Samuel I

After the repose of Catholicos Peter, Samuel succeeded him, and King Dachi “bestowed upon him the city of Mtskheta, according to the will of King Vakhtang.” St. Samuel led the Georgian Church during the reigns of King Dachi and his son Bakur. He initiated construction of Tsqarostavi Church in the Javakheti region.

What we know of St. Samuel’s activity paints him as a pastor who demonstrated great foresight and cared deeply about his flock. He was also a close acquaintance of the holy martyr Queen Shushanik.

St. Samuel faithfully served the Autocephalous Church of Georgia and labored to strengthen the Christian Faith of the Georgian people to the end of his days.

The Holy Synod of the Georgian Apostolic Orthodox Church canonized the holy Catholicos Peter and the holy Catholicos Samuel on October 17, 2002.

From THE LIVES OF THE GEORGIAN SAINTS by Archpriest Zakaria Machitadze, St. Herman Press

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Georgia’s large Armenian Minority adhere to what is known as the Oriental Orthodox faith through their Armenian Apostolic Church, in common with the Copts, Ethiopians, Eritreans and Jacobites. Their bishops reject the Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon‘s ruling on the nature of Christ (451) , accepted by all Eastern Orthodox Christians. As a result, the Church of Georgia and the Church of Armenia are not in communion with each other, although they do engage in dialogue frequently. The following article from “Notes on Arab Orthodoxy” details an early 20th century conversion of a Jacobite (Syriac) bishop to Eastern Orthodoxy, and provides a neat summary of theological differences between the churches.

Notes on Arab Orthodoxy: A non-Chalcedonian Bishop Converts to Orthodoxy in 1912

A Non-Chalcedonian Bishop Converts to Orthodoxy in 1912

The following is a translation from Asad Rustum’s History, vol. 3 pp. 357-362. It is not only interesting in terms of the description of the ceremony, but also because the conversion seems to have occurred through the Syriac bishop’s contact with Russian pilgrims. Recalling this moment of hope for Christian unity in Syria– just 100 years ago– can only bring sadness, as Christians have now been virtually eliminated in Homs. The catastrophe that brought Bishop Boutros’ Syriac community to the brink of extinction is now being completed.

Read the rest here

via Notes on Arab Orthodoxy: A non-Chalcedonian Bishop Converts to Orthodoxy in 1912.

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