By Bob Allen
Baptists in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia initiated a historic Christmas Day gathering of Muslims and Christians hailed as a model for interfaith relations in other countries.
Muslim clerics from both Shia and Sunni traditions from Georgia, Iran, Turkey and Azerbaijan gathered with Orthodox and Baptist clergy Dec. 25 to celebrate the birth of Jesus at the event hosted by the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia.
Malkhaz Songulashvili, archbishop of the 72-church Baptist union, one of the world’s few Baptist groups to have an episcopal rather than congregational polity, led the service along with Imam Zurab Tsetskhladze, the head of Georgian Muslim Union.
The service featured readings about the birth of Jesus from both the Bible and Qur’an and culminated with the exchange of gifts. Muslim clerics gave Georgian-translation copies of the Qur’an to Christian clergy and Christians gave copies of the New Testament to Muslims.
Dignitaries attending the service included European Union ambassador H.E. Philip Dimitrov and Georgian government minister Paata Zakareishvili.
Muslims do not believe Jesus was crucified or that he is part of the Trinity, but they do believe in the Virgin Birth. They claim Jesus as a prophet, a predecessor to Muhammad, who ascended to heaven and will return as part of the Second Coming.
Religion News Service recently carried a story about a growing number of Muslims who celebrate Christmas, including those who view it as a good way to reciprocate with Christians and Jews in America who fast in solidarity with Muslims during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
Songulashvili, who was recently hospitalized with a heart condition, shared news of the event in an e-mail reporting: “The Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia continues its mission for peace and reconciliation in the region.”
Though a small minority in their country, Baptists in Georgia are widely known not only for their work promoting interfaith goodwill but also for standing for religious liberty for all.
This summer the Evangelical Baptist Church in Georgia was host to an American Baptist Churches USA IGNITE mission team, whose experience included not only typical mission trip activities like visiting churches but also joining an impromptu Baptist-led demonstration on behalf of Muslims denied the right to Friday prayers two weeks in a row.
Their witness also is well known within the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. In 2010 and 2011, Songulashvili traveled to attend the CBF of Georgia annual meeting to celebrate a bond established by the discovery at Mercer University of a communion chalice awarded to Southern Baptist Convention President Louie Newton during a visit to Russia in 1946.
The cup, treasured by Newton and hailed by one newspaper as “a holy grail of peace,” was returned to Songulashvili as a symbol of fellowship in a Eucharist service on Nov. 3, 2011.