by Ian Hamel
In 1991, 75% of Adjarians in Georgia were Muslims. Today, they have become 75% Orthodox Christians. How can these conversions be explained, which is apparently unique in the world?
“What time do services begin at Saint Nicholas in Batumi on Sunday morning?”
The question embarrasses the employee of the President Plaza, one of the largest institutions in the city, a seat of the Autonomous Republic of Adjara and the Iranian consulate. It is true that in the province of Georgia, washed by the Black Sea, the population speaks little English. All signs, such as signs in the streets, are in Georgian or Russian. The employee eventually suggests joining the Church of Saint Nicholas at 9:00 AM. In fact, the Service works strangely like a self-service. The faithful men, women (head always covered) and children come and go as they please, after long embracing of the icons and after they have crossed themselves multiple times.
This curious to and fro takes most of the morning. The priest can hardly talk to us, since he speaks only Russian and Georgian. A student, smiling, who graduated in the language of Shakespeare, came to our rescue. We ask him the question:
“How is it that the majority of the inhabitants of the Autonomous Republic of Adjara in Georgia, have in two decades abandoned Islam for Orthodoxy?”
The girl apologizes, caught unaware, and prefers to dodge quickly.
But the facts are there, Adjara, conquered by the Ottomans in the seventeenth century, was overwhelmingly Muslim. In 1878, this province of 3000 km2 falls into the lap of the Russian Empire. In 1991, after the fall of communism and the independence of Georgia, Adjara seceded. Until 2004, the “independent” Republic is ruled by a dictator, a Muslim, Aslan Abashidze, now on the run. Since then Adjara (400,000) has returned to the bosom of Georgia.
According to official documents, in 1991, 75% of Adjarians were Muslims. They are now 75% Orthodox. How can this mass conversion be explained? In a long interview published in December 2012, Metropolitan Dimitri of Batumi (the capital of Adjara), also nephew of Ilia II, Patriarch of Georgia, says he was appointed parish priest of St. Nicholas in Batumi in 1986. At that time, there was only one Orthodox church in Batumi.
The Great Mosque in Batumi
“It is God’s will”
Dimitri states that
“the metamorphosis of an entire region, the conversion from Islam to Orthodoxy, or rather the return to basics, to the faith of their ancestors,”
took place before his eyes. On 13 May 1991
“5000 Muslims and atheists became Orthodox. The same year the Church opened a school in Khulo, an ecclesiastical high school named Saint Andrew, the first religious high school in the USSR.”
The Metropolitan of Batumi says that Adjarians were forcibly converted to Islam by the Ottomans though, in fact, they remained Christian at heart. According to his statement, they continued to secretly wear a cross, they painted Easter eggs, and they retained the icons in their homes.
Dimitri says that many priests come from Muslim families. The rector of the seminary is the grandson of a mullah, formed in Istanbul. How does he explain the conversions brought forward on the website Provoslavie i mir (Orthodoxy and the World):
“It is God’s will. It is a miracle of God, for unexplained reasons that could not have been predicted,” says Dimitri.
The Great Mosque of Batumi is a few blocks from the Church of Saint Nicholas, near the port. First observation: it is actually a lot less crowded than the Orthodox place of worship. Nevertheless, some local publications were denouncing a
“return to Islam supported by Turkey.”
But during our stay in Adjara, we have not seen this
“Islamic Turkish fairly consistent presence” due to “the influx of missionaries,”
including disciples of the Turkish preacher Süleyman Hilmi Tunahan.
The Sarpi border crossing with Turkey is only twenty kilometers from Batumi. If the capital of Adjara became overwhelmingly Christian, however, the small villages in the mountains of Adjara have not denied the Prophet. The village of Khulo, more than two hours away from the Black Sea, has a mosque and a madrasa. Some seniors continue to speak Turkish to us, but we cannot verify it.
A national state and Orthodox
For the visitor from the outside, the two religions appear to coexist smoothly. The Adjarians tell you without hesitation directions to the church or the nearest mosque. Nobody mentioned any persecution vis-à-vis minority religions. However, these mass conversions remain taboo. Especially as the other Muslims of Georgia (about 10% of the population) do not seem to adopt Orthodoxy as quickly. Including Kistins, ethnic Chechens near the border with Chechnya and Dagestan, and Shiites in eastern Georgia, neighboring Azerbaijan.
“We must understand that the Orthodox Church is a fundamental pillar of our national identity. In the past, we have been invaded by all our great neighbors, the Persians, the Ottomans, the Russians. If there had not been the cement of religion, there would be even more people of Georgia,”
said Alina Okkropiridze, former journalist and translator. After seventy years of state atheism, at the time of the USSR, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the first Georgian president, wanted to create a “national and Orthodox” state. His successor, Eduard Shevardnadze, former Minister of Foreign Affairs of the USSR, took care
“to announce his conversion to Orthodoxy, to be baptized and to choose as his spiritual director Patriarch Ilia II, the head of the Georgian Church since 1977,”
says the Swiss website Religioscope.
ILIA TOLI says
It’s the same in Albania. The muslim government manipulated the census to show 56% muslim and 16% christian orthodox whereas in reality it is the other way around.
Infidel Brotherhood ( Australia ) says
Just thinking, could it be, nah couldn’t be…….maybe just maybe they saw how islam was destroying humanity and they escaped the clutches of the dark side and are embracing what it is to be human.
Fr. Michael Shanbour says
Wonderful news! For goodness sake though, let’s get some priests that speak their language or at least interpreters. That church is pretty small for 5,000 people. How about a few more churches in town?
It seems to me there may be very little mystery here. Truth yielding faith is a desirable thing. People seek truth, and finding it, embrace it and share the treasure. While there may be some ‘mystery’ in the eyes of Muslim adherents, there is no mystery that the true faith of the Orthodox faith, with that ‘click of perfection’ encompasses heart body, soul and mind. When offered freedom to choose, the masses ultimately recognize real truth and rush to it. Orthodoxy is a true way of belief and life based upon absolute truth. Its power is engaging as it changes people, and thus changes society. Seeing that change is a powerful witness attracting more to the church. Unexpected? Perhaps. A mystery? Not so much.
Dr. Timothy J. Williams says
We must all be ready to evangelize Muslims. With truth and compassion from Christians, they will readily abandon the hateful religion of Mohammed. As a Roman Catholic, I say God Bless the Orthodox Church for bringing these good people to Christ!
Abashidze was Christian, his father converted to the Christianity. Other reason for it is the shift i population. There are litle Ajarians left in Ajaria only 1,5% of the population.
Sam Shalom says
We thank God for leading these souls to salvation and pray that others will also see the love of God and abandon hate.
Glory to God!
Onil D'Souza says
Let this mystery repeat itself in many other parts of the world. Jesus Christ is always triumphant.
I never agree that a true Muslim can abandon a way of Islam! No never! there must be some manipulation or use of force to convert!
Fr. John says
No, Christians don’t force others to convert. That’s Islam. These men discovered something – they just realized that God orders us to love and forgive, not hate and kill. They preferred Christ to Mohammed, and it is not hard to see why.
Now for Turkey…the Ottoman’s took away Paul’s hard work…that place is Christian; lets get it back!!!
glory to GOD
Ruteru Temboa says
Hi, first time to hear this great and amazing story of Georgia. I will pray that the Lord will continue to work out His own way to bring people to Himself’
Thanks to be God
I agree with Dr. Williams above. I too am a Catholic but I rejoice in this story. Just as I rejoice in the stories about 300K Iranians becoming Christians via Protestant churches. We have issues that divide us but we confess the same God and therefore are doing His work. As for Khalid..the only manipulation or force in regards to religion comes from the Islamic side. Threats of death for ‘apostasy’ will not work when compared to finding Truth.
GORDON CARTER says
AS A CATHOLIC IN AUSTRALIA, I TOO REJOICE WITH MY ORTHODOX BROTHERS AND SISTERS IN THIS NEWS. WHEREEVER A WINDOW CLOSES, AS IT SEEMS TO BE DOING ON SO MUCH OF THE CHURCH IN THE MIDDLE EAST BECAUSE OF ISLAMIC PERSECUTION,ANOTHER WIDOWS OPENS. “THE BLOOD OF MARTYS IS THE SEED OF THE CHURCH’ AS TERTULLIANS WROTE.
GORDON CARTER. ADELAIDE. SOUTH AUSTRALIA.
Sugin Fernando says
being an indian christian , very glad to hear this PRAISE GOD
yes muslims must be converted to christianity esspecially in Europe so that they can live without a violent life.
Pat Fletcher says
It is happening in Germany too, many refugees from Iran and Syria are converting to Christianity, some are suspicious of their motives and say it is to facilitate the asylum claims, but I think it is our Lord’s plan, what better way to swell the European Christians than to take these refugees in and show them that Jesus is ‘the way, the truth and the life’ . This is very exciting.
its really a proud thing to see that muslims are finding a new path to our saviour jesus christ………….. being an indian i see. my own neighbours get impressed with christianity and its teachings and i hav seen many converts to christianity too………. the same is happening in syria and iraq and worldwide…… thanxx LORD ………… and i thank GOD for salvation of these muslims….
Georgian here, region of ajara ( Georgia) was under Ottoman/Turkish control for centuries. It is also true, that significant amount of residents of the region professed Islam due to forcibly convention to the religion. But after Soviet union broke down in 1991 Orthodox church saw increase in numbers in region. Returning to Holy church has become almost daily thing which could not make us happier. After all Georgia is one of the oldest Christian nations
The best news as we begin this new year of chaos and upheaval. New hope in a small beautiful place for Christian stability in the face of Muslim anger.
Philip Mose says
Praise God. This is happening all over the World. I’m Nigerian
Fr. John says
Philip, that is glorious news!
The Glory of the lord will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea.
JESUS ssid i am the way the way the truth and the life no man shall come to God except through me.
The only man to conquer death was Jesus the Christ the son of the living God.