KIEV, Ukraine (ABP) — Baptist leaders from Russia and Georgia met Oct. 30 in Kiev to pursue improved relations between Baptists in the two countries, marred by war earlier this year.
Representatives of the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia and Union of Evangelical Christian-Baptists of Russia, gathering in the capital of neighboring Ukraine, issued a joint statement condemning the war. It also called on both sides’ governments to seek peaceful resolution of future Russian-Georgian conflicts and asked people of faith to "facilitate the process of forgiveness and reconciliation between our peoples."
In addition, the leaders pledged to continue efforts to build unity between the two nations’ Baptist communities despite significant differences.
"We agree to fully recognize each other’s churches in their integrity and take bold steps to understand each other and respect each other’s experience," the declaration said.
As part of that process, the Baptist leaders pledged to visit each other's countries to "promote friendship and understanding between our peoples" and to engage in theological dialogue between groups "to promote mutual cooperation in the mission of God."
The stated purpose of the meeting was "to sort out our relations between our churches and offer [a] visible symbol of possible reconciliation between our churches, peoples and countries," according to the English version of a Russian Baptist press release.
The participants condemned the war between the two countries as "pointless and brutal" and agreed that issues between Georgia and Russia "should not be solved by military means."
Archbishop Malkhaz Songulashvili and Bishop Merab Gaprindashvili represented the Georgian Baptist union. Representing Russian Baptists were Russian Baptist president Yuri Sipko and Vitaly Vlasenko, the Russian union's head of external church relations. The meeting was facilitated by Gregory Komendant, former president of the European Baptist Federation.
Causes of the August military confrontation — over control of the breakaway Georgian territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia — remain controversial.
Georgia launched a military strike Aug. 7 on Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital, aimed at re-asserting control over the territory after 16 years of semi-independence. Russia responded with tanks, ground troops, air strikes and a naval blockade. Russian forces reached deep into undisputed Georgian territory during the conflict.
Georgia says it is being punished for its pro-Western orientation and bid to join NATO. Russia claims to have evidence of ethnic cleansing, and its officials contend Western media unfairly portrayed Russia as the aggressor.
Both Abkhazia and South Ossetia have ethnic Russian majorities, and their citizens are allowed to hold Russian passports. However, international agreements recognize the territories as being part of Georgia.
An Aug. 16 cease-fire agreement halted the violence, but Russia still has not withdrawn forces from all positions they occupied during the conflict.
In August, the Russian Baptist union’s Vlasenko acknowledged that friendship between the Baptists of Russia and Georgia had turned cold during the past 15 years. Citing distrust between the neighboring countries that prompted the war, he said Russian Baptists were ready to "extend the hand of friendship to our sisters and brothers in Georgia."
Vlasenko said Nov. 3 that Russian Baptists "are serious and committed in our relationship with Georgian Baptists."
He said the groups have not reached full agreement, but "we are continuing to work on a relationship that goes down deeply." He added, "We are willing to learn more about our differences, and we hope to find unity in our differences."
In addition to political disputes, there are some doctrinal and stylistic differences between the two Baptist groups. Georgian Baptists have adopted many of the trappings of the Georgian Orthodox tradition, including the use of icons and Orthodox-style clergy vestments in worship. That raises eyebrows for many Baptists, especially in Eastern Europe.
The Georgian Baptist group also has a more hierarchical denominational structure than the Russians, distinguishing it from the highly congregational nature of most Baptist organizations.
Vlasenko is part of a delegation of Russian Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant leaders planning to visit Georgia to meet with political and religious leaders before the end of the year.
"Russian churches have been very involved in helping South Ossetia, but we have done very little in Georgia," he said. "It is my hope that not only words, but that also deeds might result from the on-going church dialogue between Russia and Georgia."
— Robert Marus contributed to this story.