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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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At present, the heads or representatives of all the Autocephalous Orthodox Christian Churches are engaged in a meeting (“Synaxis” in Greek) in the Phanar in Constantinople, at the invitation of the His All-Holiness Bartholomew, the Ecumenical Patriarch. This includes His Holiness Patriarch Ilia II. His assistant Father Giorgi Zviadadze, the Rector of the Tbilisi Theological Academy and parish priest of Sioni Cathedral, is also in attendance.

Source

It has been 1227 years since the last and Seventh Ecumenical Council, with Muslim Arab and Turkish invasions, and Communist takeovers, of many Orthodox Christian lands interrupting regular communications between churches. For some time the churches have been moving towards a new Ecumenical Council to resolve some issues outstanding for many years. According to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the purpose of this meeting is ” to deliberate on matters pertaining to the entire Orthodox Church throughout the world and procedural issues for the convocation of the Holy and Great Council, whose preparation is coming to an end.”

Issues of overlapping jurisdictions in ethnically mixed regions have been a bone of contention for some time, that will no doubt be discussed. Georgia suffers from this issue, with both Georgia and the Moscow Patriarchate laying claim to authority over the Church in the Russian-occupied region of Abkhazia. Ukraine also has its share of jurisdictional issues, with Eastern Orthodox communities from both Moscow Patriarchate and the two other self-proclaimed autocephalous Ukrainian Patriarchates in dispute over many issues, including Ukraine’s territorial integrity and national independence.

There are also differences of opinion on the merit of Orthodox Churches engaging in dialogue with the heterodox. The Georgian Church at this time has reservations about the value of such dialogue, whereas the Church of Constantinople is in general more enthusiastic about dialogue, particularly with Old Rome.

The address of His All-Holiness, kindly provided here by the EP’s Hong Kong Metropolitanate, is carefully considered and gives a very good precis on current Orthodox thought on the balance between unity and local autonomy, and Christian values in the midst of a fast-changing world.

“Your Beatitudes and most venerable Brothers in Christ, First-Hierarchs of the Most Holy Orthodox Churches, and honorable members of your entourages,

Welcome to the courtyard of our Church, the martyric and historical Ecumenical Patriarchate, this humble servant of unity in Christ for us all. From the depths of our heart, we thank you for the labor of love, which has brought you here in eager response to our invitation.

We offer glory and praise to our God who is worshipped in the Trinity for rendering us worthy to convene once again in the same place for another Synaxis, as those entrusted by His grace and mercy with the responsibility of leadership for the local autocephalous Orthodox Churches. This is the sixth such consecutive Synaxis since this blessed custom commenced in 1992, shortly after our elevation to the Throne of Constantinople. Like the Psalmist, we too proclaim: “Behold what a good and wonderful thing it is for brothers to dwell in the same place.” Our heart is filled with joy and delight in receiving you and embracing each one of you with sincere love, profound honor and favorable anticipation of our encounter.

Indeed, we could say that our encounter is a great event, both blessed and historical. The breath of the Paraclete has gathered us, and the eyes of those both inside and outside of our Church are anxiously focused on this Synaxis, in anticipation of an edifying and comforting word, which our world so needs today.

This increases and intensifies our responsibility, rendering our obligation more serious, so that through fervent prayer we might seek assistance from above in the work that lies before us; for without this divine support we can do nothing. (Cf. John 15.5) This is why we humbly beseech the Lord, as the Founder of the Church, to bless our work abundantly and through the Paraclete to direct our hearts, minds and decisions for the fulfillment of His holy will, the strengthening and sealing of our unity, as well as the glory of the Holy and Triune God.

As we recall the previous Synaxis meetings of the First-Hierarchs of the Orthodox Churches, all of which with the grace of God were crowned with complete success, we bring to mind in gratitude those who participated in these assemblies, having already departed and being of blessed memory, the late Patriarchs Parthenios and Petros of Alexandria, Ignatius of Antioch, Diodoros of Jerusalem, Alexy of Moscow, Pavel of Serbia, Teoktist of Romania, Maxim of Bulgaria, as well as Archbishops Chrysostomos of Cyprus, Seraphim and Christodoulos of Athens, Vasili of Poland, and Dorotheos of the Czech Lands and Slovakia, whose contribution to the success of these meetings was exceptionally edifying, also bequeathing to us as their successors an example to imitate and a legacy to preserve. May their memory be eternal!

The reasons that led us to assume the initiative for convening this Synaxis are already well known to you from the Letter of invitation, which we addressed to you. Echoing the words of the Apostle, we wrote to you: “There is fighting without and fear within.” (2 Cor. 7.6) Inasmuch as it exists in the world, our Holy Church always endures the turmoil of historical upheaval, which is sometimes very fierce. In the critical times that we are undergoing, this upheaval is especially palpable in the geographical regions, where the Christian Church emerged, matured and flourished, namely in the ancient senior Patriarchates of the Most Holy Orthodox Church. There, frequently in the name of religion, violence dominates and threatens all believers in Christ irrespective of confessional identity. We follow with great sorrow and concern the persecutions of Christians, the destruction and sacrilege of sacred churches, the abduction and assassination of clergy and monastics, even of hierarchs, such as the long kidnapped Metropolitans of Aleppo, Paul of the ancient Patriarchate of Antioch and Yuhanna Ibrahim of the Syrian Jacobite Church, whose whereabouts have since been unknown.

Before this phenomenon, which threatens the very existence of the Orthodox Churches, we are called to raise a voice of protest, not as isolated individuals or Churches, but as the one, united Orthodox Church throughout the world.

Nevertheless, the persecution against the Christian faith in our time is not restricted to the above forms of provocative oppression. Equally great is the danger, which arises from the rapid secularization of formerly Christian societies, where the Church of Christ is marginalized from public life, while fundamental spiritual and moral principles of the Gospel are expelled from people’s lives. Of course, the Orthodox Church has never favored the forceful imposition of evangelical principles on people, placing freedom of the human person above objective rules and values. Coercion of any kind does not belong to the nature and ethos of Orthodoxy. Matters pertaining to people’s moral life are treated by the Orthodox Church as being personal, managed by each individual in his or her personal relationship in freedom with their spiritual father and not by the sword of the law. However, this in no way eliminates from the Church its obligation to promote the Gospel principles in the contemporary world, even if these sometimes come into conflict with prevailing ideas.

Our Holy Orthodox Church is characterized by its attention to the traditions of the past, and it is obligated to do this at all times, for “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and to the ages.” (Heb. 13.8) Nonetheless, history advances, and the Church is also required to be attentive to the problems facing people in every age. A traditional Church does not mean a fossilized Church, one that is indifferent to the ongoing challenges of history. Such challenges are particularly acute in our times, and we are compelled to heed them.

One of these derives from the rapid development of technology and the globalization that it sustains. The Orthodox Church has always been ecumenical in its orientation and structure. Its mission has always been to approach and embrace “all nations,” irrespective of race, color, or other physical features, within the body of Christ. Yet this ecumenical approach has always manifested itself within the Orthodox Church with a sense of respect for the particularity of each people, of its mentality and tradition. Today, technology unites all people, and this undoubtedly has positive consequences for the dissemination of knowledge and information. Notwithstanding, it constitutes a channel for the transmission and, indirectly, the imposition of specific cultural models, which are not always compatible with the particular traditions of the same people. The use of technology should not occur indiscriminately or without an awareness of the accompanying risks. The Church must be vigilant on this matter.

Related to this is also the issue – in many ways supported by technology – of the rapid emergence of scientific achievements, especially in the field of biotechnology. The potential of contemporary science extends as far as intervention into the innermost aspects of nature and genetic modifications capable of healing illnesses; however, at the same time, it creates serious ethical problems, on which the Church can and must voice its opinion. We should confess that the Orthodox Church has not demonstrated due sensitivity with regard to this issue. At our previous Synaxis in 2008, we decided to establish an Inter-Orthodox Committee for Bioethics, which, with the initiative of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, convened its first meeting in Crete; unfortunately, the response of our sister Churches was not adequate in order to permit the continuation of this effort. We hope that this will happen in the immediate future so that the voice of Orthodoxy may be heard on such an important subject.

Heeding the present-day existential problems of humanity, Orthodoxy too must continue its efforts for the protection of the natural environment. When the Ecumenical Patriarchate – first among all in the Christian world – highlighted the urgency of this issue, already during the tenure of our venerable predecessor Patriarch Demetrios in 1989, maintaining this effort with a series of international scientific symposia under our auspices, the Orthodox Church for a long time remained the sole Christian voice on this serious matter. Today, other Christian churches and confessions also attribute the necessary importance to this crucial problem, but Orthodoxy still provides par excellence the appropriate response through its liturgical and ascetic tradition, capable of contributing to a resolution for this crisis, which as a result of human greed and indulgence today jeopardizes the very survival of God’s creation.

Finally, our most Holy Church is obligated to pay careful and compassionate attention to the problems created by the economic framework of the modern world. All of us are witnesses to the negative consequences of the financial crisis for the dignity and survival of human personhood, an oppressive crisis for human beings in many regions of the planet, and particularly in countries regarded as being financially “developed.” Unemployment of youth, increase of poverty, uncertainty for the future – all these bear testimony to how contemporary humanity is greatly estranged from the application of the Gospel principles, something for which we too are all responsible inasmuch as we often exhaust our pastoral care on “spiritual” matters and neglect the fact that humankind requires food and basic material resources in order to live in a dignified manner as human persons created in the image of God. It is vital that the voice of Orthodoxy is heard on these matters as well in order to prove that it genuinely possesses the truth and remains faithful to the principles of the Gospel.

However, in order to achieve all this, beloved Brothers in the Lord, there is one necessary condition, namely the unity of our Church and the prospect of addressing the contemporary world with a unified voice. This must also concern our present Synaxis inasmuch as we are entrusted with responsibility for the unity of our most Holy Church.

As we know, the Orthodox Church comprises a number of autocephalous regional Churches, which move within certain boundaries defined by the Sacred Canons and the Tomes conferring their autocephaly while at the same time being entitled to full self-administration without any external interference whatsoever. This system, which was bequeathed to us by our Fathers, constitutes a blessing that we must preserve like the apple of our eyes. For it is by means of this system that we may avoid any deviation toward conceptions foreign to Orthodox ecclesiology concerning the exercise of universal authority by any local Church or its First-Hierarch. The Orthodox Church comprises a communion of autocephalous and self-administered Orthodox Churches.

Nevertheless, it is precisely on this point that a serious question arises. How and in what way is the communion of the Orthodox Churches expressed? Historical experience has demonstrated that very often the autocephalous Orthodox Churches act as if they were self-sufficient Churches, as if they say to the other Churches: “I have no need of you.” (1 Cor. 12.21) Instead of seeking the cooperation of other Orthodox Churches on matters pertaining to Orthodoxy in its entirety, they act on their own and initiate bilateral relations with those outside of Orthodoxy, sometimes even in a spirit of competition. Other autocephalous Churches differentiate their position before non-Orthodox and do not actively participate in activities agreed upon at a Pan-Orthodox level. Indeed, more recently, there are some Pan-Orthodox Preconciliar decisions, which are not adhered to by some Churches despite the fact that they cosigned these agreements. Or what can we say of cases where sister Churches of their own accord dispute canonical boundaries of other sister Churches, provoking bitterness and at times turmoil within this communion? All these things render apparent the need for an instrument, whether institutionally endorsed or not, which is able to resolve differences that arise and problems that are created from time to time, in order that we may not be led to division and conflict.

Thus we can clearly see the paramount importance of synodality in the Church. The synodal system has from the outset constituted a foundational aspect of Church life. Every difference or disagreement in matters of either faith or canonical order was set before the judgment of the Synod. A characteristic example of this is St. Basil’s stance on the matter of rebaptism of heretics and schismatics, concerning which he had inherited the austere tradition of his predecessors in Cappadocia: the matter should be judged by a synod of bishops, who are also able to modify the earlier tradition. (Canons 1 and 47) All differences between Churches or outside them were definitively judged by Synods, whose decisions were ultimately adhered to even by those in disagreement. (“Let the vote of the majority prevail.” Canon 6 of the 1st Ecumenical Council.)

This synodal system was and is upheld more or less faithfully, within the autocephalous Orthodox Churches, but it is entirely absent in relations among them. This accounts for a source of major problems. It creates an image of Orthodoxy as being many Churches but not one Church, which by no means concur with Orthodox ecclesiology; instead it comprises an aberration from this ecclesiology and becomes the root of trouble. We are obligated to support the synodal system even beyond the boundaries of our individual Churches. We are required to develop a conscience of one Orthodox Church, and the concept of synodality alone can achieve this goal.

Over fifty years ago, when the late visionary Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras initiated the preliminary steps for the unity of Orthodoxy, the institution of Pan-Orthodox Consultations was established and determined common decisions for the Orthodox on matters pertaining to relations with non-Orthodox. These decisions were considered as binding for all the Orthodox Churches, as if they were incorporated into the “internal regulations” of each of these Churches. Today these same decisions are questioned and even challenged quite arbitrarily and uncanonically by segments within the Orthodox Churches, which purportedly act like ecumenical councils and dispute them, thereby creating confusion among their faithful flock. Unfortunately, this phenomenon is even tolerated by the hierarchal leadership of some Churches, with unforeseen consequences for the unity of their flock. However, synodal decisions must be respected by all, for this is the only way that we can preserve the unity of the Church.

Nonetheless, these Pan-Orthodox Consultations have not themselves exhausted the effort for the unity of Orthodoxy. The Churches decided from very early on that the convocation of a Holy and Great Council was absolutely necessary for the Orthodox Church, formally announcing this to the entire Christian world and commencing preparations for this extraordinary and historical event. The agenda for this Synod was finally restricted to ten topics, of which eight have already run the course of their preparatory stage and been placed before us for determination by the Holy and Great Council. The remaining two topics, namely the manner of declaring a Church as autocephalous and the order of Churches’ commemoration in the sacred Diptychs, have encountered serious difficulties in their preparatory stage, and so the majority of the sister Orthodox Churches decided that they should not present an obstacle for the convening of the Holy and Great Council, which should be confined to the already prepared topics (one of which, namely regarding the declaration of a Church as autonomous, still requires approval by a Pan-Orthodox Preconciliar Consultation).

Of course, even among the topics prepared on a Pan-Orthodox level, there are still some details that need certain revisions and updating inasmuch as they were formulated and agreed upon a long time ago, when different circumstances and presuppositions prevailed. These include, for instance, matters related to the social conditions of the world, such as the relationship of the Orthodox Church with non-Orthodox Christians, the Ecumenical Movement, and so forth. These documents must be revised by an Inter-Orthodox Committee created for this purpose in order that they might be presented to the Holy and Great Council in a manner adapted to today’s reality.

This is what we have to say about the agenda of the Synod. Nonetheless, it is evident that all the anticipated topics of the Synod pertain to matters of internal nature and organization for our Church. Our predecessors, who determined the agenda of the Synod, rightly decided that, unless the Orthodox Church places its own house in order, it would be unable to address the world with authority and validity. However, the world’s expectations of this Holy and Great Council will surely also include a reference to matters preoccupying people of our time in their daily life, which is why it is mandatory for this Council to extend a Message of existential importance for people in our age. Such a Message – once again well prepared by a special Inter-Orthodox Committee, formulated and approved by the Fathers of the Council – will constitute the voice of the Orthodox Church to the contemporary world: a word of consolation, comfort, and life, which contemporary humanity awaits from the Orthodox Church.

Of course, the convocation of the Holy and Great Council will also demand certain provisions of administrative nature, on which we are called to reflect and resolve during our present Synaxis, as the most appropriate and responsible for this task. Thus, we must deliberate and decide about the way in which the Holy and Great Council will convene, that is to say about how the Most Holy autocephalous Orthodox Churches will be represented there in a manner that is fair and consistent with the principles of our ecclesiological tradition. In the first millennium of our Church’s history, when the institution of the Pentarchy of the ancient Patriarchates prevailed, it was considered absolutely necessary for all the ancient Patriarchates to be represented, even if by a small number of delegates. The emphasis was placed not on the number of those in attendance, but on the assurance of representation by all of the Apostolic Thrones. Over the second millennium after Christ, other Patriarchates and autocephalous Churches were also added, with reference to validation of their status by a future Ecumenical Council (for those not receiving status approval in the past). By analogy, then, and in accordance with the ancient tradition, it would also be desirable in the case of the proposed Holy and Great Council that all Orthodox Churches recognized as autocephalous today should be represented therein by a number of delegates designated by us, if possible at this Synaxis.

Another topic of administrative nature requiring our resolution is that which pertains to the method of pronouncing decisions by the Holy and Great Council. For reasons of fairness to every autocephalous Church, irrespective of the number of its delegates, it is imperative that each autocephalous Church retains the right of a single vote in the final process of decision-making, which will be exercised by its First-Hierarch during the voting process. What remains crucial is the question about whether the final decisions of the Synod will be determined by unanimity or majority among the Churches in attendance at the Synod. If the criterion of our choice is the ancient canonical tradition of the Church, the canonical order compels that the “majority vote” ultimately prevails in the Synod’s decisions. (See Canon 6 of the 1st Ecumenical Council) This probably held true in the ancient Church even with regard to matters of faith, given that in many of the larger Synods, such as the 3rd Ecumenical Council and others, even those ultimately declared as heretics by the Synod and repudiated by the Church, namely those comprising the minority, would also have been in attendance. Nonetheless, with regard to matters of canonical nature, the order recommended by tradition undoubtedly leads to final decision-making by majority vote, without this of course ruling out the possibility of an always desirable unanimity. It is up to us to decide about this matter as well.

Beloved Brothers in Christ,

Our Synaxis here is of vital importance. It comes at an historical and providential time, when the Church is suffering formidable upheaval and its ability to exercise its salvific mission is being assessed. Nothing any longer can be taken for granted, as it might be in other ages; everything can change from one moment to another. Complacency is the cause of destruction. Even state authorities cannot provide a guarantee for the Church; neither can affluence or secular influence; nor again do societies welcome the Gospel teaching without debate and dispute. Today we must convince people that we have the word of life, the message of hope and the experience of love. And in order to achieve this, we must have validity and credibility.

A fundamental presupposition for us to convince the world is first of all our own internal unity. It is regrettable and perilous for the validity of the Orthodox Church that to outsiders we often appear divided and dissenting. We hold and proclaim the most perfect ecclesiology; yet we sometimes refuse to apply it. We have a precise order in the Church, defined by the Sacred Canons of the Holy Ecumenical Councils; yet we sometimes give the impression to outsiders that we disagree even about who is “first” among us. We possess the synodal institution as an authority, to which everyone is supposed to conform; yet we allow – whether through carelessness or misdirected ambition, which frequently conceals individual self-defense – the synodal decisions to be trampled by segments of our flock that lay a claim to the infallibility of faith. Generally speaking, we manifest signs of dissolution. It is time for us to give priority to unity – both outside of our Churches as well as among them.

The Orthodox Church, to which we belong by the grace of God, does not have at its disposal any other instrument of preserving its unity except synodality. It is for this reason that any further delay in convening the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church severely harms its unity. Our responsibility in this regard is immense. The Church of Constantinople, which for a thousand years after the great Schism with Rome has served the unity of Orthodoxy by repeatedly convening Pan-Orthodox Synods, is today equally conscious of its onerous obligation with regard to Pan-Orthodox unity. Thankfully, however, it is not alone in this. The other autocephalous Orthodox Churches, too, proved over fifty years ago that they yearn for the convocation of the Holy and Great Council of our Church. Behold, the time has come; indeed, “times are impatient.” Preparations can never be perfect. Let us be satisfied with what we have agreed thus far. Let us resolve without delay – with love and in accordance with the Sacred Canons – any difference we may still have in our relationships to one another. “Let us love one another, so that with one mind we may confess” the one Triune God and the Lord, who suffered and was risen for all people without exception, to a world that is in such dire need of the message of God’s love. Let us proceed to the convocation of the Holy and Great Council as soon as possible, and let us permit the Paraclete to speak, surrendering to His breath.

This is what we have in fraternal love to express to you, dearest Brothers in the Lord, at the commencement of the proceedings of our Synaxis.

 “Now to Him who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, to Him be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen.” (Eph. 3.20-21)

 (Phanar, March 6, 2014)

 
 

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I have mentioned before how I am impressed with the geographic distribution of Georgian monasteries in the Medieval world. In addition to monasteries in the Holy Land, Cyprus and Mount Athos, the Petritsoni Monastery of south-central Bulgaria was a major monastic complex built and run by Georgian monks from the 11th century.

Known in Bulgarian as Bachkovo Monastery, Petritsoni Monastery is one of the oldest monastic complexes in the Balkans. Established by Prince Gregory Bakurianidze of the Eastern Roman Empire in 1083, the community was run by Iberian monks living within the Roman Empire at the time. Hailing from Georgia’s Tao region (currently part of Turkey) , Prince Gregory’s family background is not well known. A seminary was established at Petritsoni and it was renowned as a major centre of learning for the faithful throughout the Balkans, Black Sea region and the Levant. It is recognised as a  unique fusion of Georgian, Byzantine and Slavic architecture and art, and was nominated for UNESCO World Heritage listing in 1984

The Georgian monks lost their influence in the monastery in the 13th century and the complex was administered by the Church of Bulgaria until now. It is the second largest monastery in the country.

Today is the commemoration of Saint Iaone Chimchimeli (იოანე ჭიმჭიმელი) of Petritsoni,  one of the most eminent theologians and scholars to graduate from the seminary of Petritsoni.

He translated many Greek Neoplatonic philosophical texts, with the objective of reconciling the core message of Christianity with Classical Greek philosophy. This clashed somewhat with Georgian patristic orthodoxy, and it is believed that several of his mentors in Constantinople were censured and persecuted for attempting this reconciliation.

King David Aghmashenebeli eventually established him at Gelati Academy in Kutaisi. During his life he translated works by Aristotle, ProclusNemesius, and Ammonius Hermiae. His orginal analysis of the works of Proclus and the Neoplatonic ideal is considered his most enduring work. He also wrote mystical poetry and hymns.

Little information about the life of Saint Ioane of Chimchimi has been preserved, but we know that he was a great translator, philosopher, and defender of the Georgian Christian Faith.

Ioane received his education in present-day Bulgaria, at the literary school of the famous Petritsoni (now Bachkovo) Georgian Monastery.

One historian writes: “In his eulogy on the death of Saint Demetre the King, Ioane the Philosopher of Chimchimi brilliantly describes the glory, honor, and heroism of this holy man’s life.”

Saint Ioane translated many exegetical compositions, including two commentaries on the Book of Ecclesiastes, one by Metrophanes of Smyrna (Metropolitan of Smyrna (857–880). His Commentary on Ecclesiastes is preserved only in Georgian.) and the other by Olympiodorus of Alexandria. (A 6th-century deacon who wrote a series of commentaries on the books of the Bible, not to be confused with the neoplatonist philosopher also of the 6th century.) He also translated “An Explanation of the Gospel According to St. Mark” and “An Explanation of the Gospel According to St. Luke”, both by Blessed Theophylactus of Bulgaria

The works of our Holy Father Ioane of Chimchimi are fundamental to the canon of Georgian theological literature.

In his work “Pilgrimage”, the eminent eighteenth-century historian Archbishop Timote (Gabashvili) mentions Ioane of Chimchimi among the holy fathers portrayed in the frescoes at the Holy Cross Monastery in Jerusalem.

In the second half of the 19th century the historian Mose Janashvili wrote, in his History of the Georgian Church, that Ioane of Chimchimi directed a literary school in the village of Gremi in Kakheti.

According to Janashvili, students at Saint Ioane’s school were instructed in philosophy and theology as well as in the Greek, Syrian, and Arabic languages.

From “Lives of the Georgian Saints” by Archpriest Zachariah Machitadze, Saint Herman’s Press.

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Continuing with my interest in the history of the Tao-Klarjeti region, the story of King Ashot Kuropalates is a fascinating one. I have mentioned him before regarding his relationship with Saint Grigol. The first of the Bagrationi family to rule beyond regional boundaries, he developed an organised state incorporating most of Central and Western Georgia and parts of Turkey’s Northeast. He worked vigourously to free Georgia of Arab occupation.

In the year 786, Ashot, the son of Adarnerse, ascended the throne of Kartli. From the very beginning of his reign he fought fiercely for the reunification of Georgia. His first step was to take advantage of the Arab Muslims’ weariness and banish them from Tbilisi. 

Three years passed and, under the leadership of a new ruler, the reinvigorated Muslims began to hunt for Ashot. The king was forced to flee after he delayed taking action against them. The enemy had again conquered Tbilisi. 

Ashot was compelled to leave Kartli, and he departed for Byzantium with his family and small army. The refugees journeyed as far as Javakheti in southern Georgia and stopped near Lake Paravani for a rest. But while they were sleeping, a Saracen army assailed their camp. The king’s army was doomed, but God helped Ashot Kuropalates and his scant army. He bestowed power upon them, and they defeated an enemy that greatly outnumbered them. The king was deeply moved by God’s miraculous intervention and decided that, rather than journeying on to Byzantium as he had intended, he would remain in the region of Shavshet-Klarjeti.

At that time southern Georgia was suffering great calamities. A cholera epidemic intensified the struggles of a people devastated by a ruthless enemy. Very few had survived, but that powerless and wearied remnant gladly received Ashot Kuropalates as their new leader, and the king began to restore the region at once. 

Ashot Kuropalates restored Artanuji Castle, which had originally been built by King Vakhtang Gorgasali and later ravaged by the Arab general Marwan “the Deaf.” Ashot founded a city nearby and proclaimed it the residence of the Bagrationi royal family of Klarjeti. He also constructed a church in honor of Sts. Peter and Paul. As it is written, “God granted Ashot Kuropalates great strength and many victories.” 

The region of Klarjeti took on a new life, and through the efforts of St. Grigol of Khandzta and his companions, the former wasteland was transformed into a borough bustling with churches, monasteries, and schools. Georgian noblemen soon began traveling to Klarjeti to forge their nation’s future with King Ashot and the other God-fearing leaders. 

Ashot Kuropalates was not only a leader who campaigned vigorously for the unification of Georgia—he was truly a godly-minded man. With great honor and joy he was the host of Fr. Grigol of Khandzta, a “heavenly man and an earthly angel.” Fr. Grigol blessed Ashot’s kingdom and his inheritance. 

Upon those who labored at Khandzta Monastery, Ashot Kuropalates bestowed the best lands, including Shatberdi, to serve as rural estates, which would supply food for the monastery. His children, Adarnerse, Bagrat, and Guaram, would later contribute much of their own fortune to the revival of the monasteries in the KlarjetiWilderness. (Udabno in Georgian. Translated as “wilderness,” these deserted places where hermits made their abodes often attracted monks and pious laymen as the fame of these holy men spread. Over the centuries, with the foundation of numerous monasteries, these deserts became veritable cities and only retained the name “wilderness” in a figurative sense.) 
      
The king prepared to return to Kartli. But his plans were foiled when a certain Muslim warrior named Khalil invaded, conquering the lands of Kartli, Hereti, and Kvemo Kartli.

Ashot sent his men to assemble an army, but before the troops had been gathered, the Saracens attacked and forced them to flee. The king then traveled to Nigali Gorge with the intent of enlarging his army. Some of the draftees turned out to be traitors, and when the king discovered the betrayal, it was already too late. He hid in a church, but the godless men found him and stabbed him to death in the sanctuary. “They murdered him on the altar, as though slaughtering a sacrificial lamb, and his blood remains there to this day,” writes Sumbat, the son of Davit, in his book Lives of the Bagrationis. 

Thus the first Bagrationi king, “a believer, upon whom the inheritance of the Georgian people was established,” was also a martyr. Venerable Grigol and the Georgian people wept bitterly over the loss of their king and hope. St. Ashot’s holy relics were buried in the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul that he himself had built.

From “Lives of the Georgian Saints” by Archpriest Zakariah Machitadze. Saint Hermans Press

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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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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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