A bold testimony to interfaith conciliation

Peace Cathedral, Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia

Ken Sehested

Invocation. “Psalm 51,” Choir of St. Simon the Leper, Republic of Georgia (sung in Aramaic)

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Among the most important practices in the life of faith is lifting up and celebrating hopeful stories—however small or localized—where flourishing life pushes back the boundaries of grief’s shadow. This work is particularly important in the context of erupting racial-ethnic-religious hostilities.

As Richard Rohr has said, “The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better.”

Among the least known amazing stories of this past week was a milestone accomplishment of the Peace Cathedral in Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia, a country located on the eastern edge of the Black Sea in the Caucasus region where Eastern Europe meets Western Asia, on Russia’s southern border where, as in Ukraine, Russia has since 2008 occupied two Georgian provinces.

Some years ago Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili, recipient of numerous human rights awards, had a vision of expanding the cathedral’s parameters to make space for a synagogue and a mosque, after riots against various minorities in Georgia in 2013 spurred him to show how the different faiths can unite against prejudice.

Part of that expansion was celebrated this past week when the Beit Knesset HaShalom synagogue was formally dedicated. Included in the occasion was the inaugural Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. lecture, which is expected to occur annually at the synagogue. The initial address was delivered by Dr. Roland Stolte of the House of One in Berlin, Germany, which espouses a similar vision for Interreligious community.

Above: Holy Ark housing the Torah scroll in the Beit Knesset Ha Shalom synagogue, one of three sanctuaries in the Peace Cathedral interfaith compound.

A delegation of US and Canadian citizens led by Rev. Paul Hayes was present for the celebration. Hayes offered this comment:

“Against the backdrop of current wars and hostility, the Peace Project is a small, yet prophetic, claim that building relationships of trust and mutual care are possible and, indeed, preferable and necessary if peace is ever to be realized. To witness firsthand the depth of feeling and concern expressed between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims and among Jews, Muslims, Christians, and Buddhists at a time like this provides the hope and assurance I need to counter the cynicism that too often leaves me in despair.”

The Peace Cathedral’s space also houses a chapel for use by other faith groups, including, most recently, by Buddhists, Yazidis, and Hindus.

Songulashvili, along with Bishop Rusudan Gotsiridze, the only female bishop in Georgia, have been highly public in their support of a variety of human rights concerns, opposing religious discrimination against minority peoples in the region, supporting interfaith dialogue, gender equality, and the LGBTQ community. In 2014 Gotsiridze was recipient of the International Women of Courage Award by the US Department of State.

What will be surprising to many is that the Peace Cathedral is a Baptist congregation, the “mother church” of the Evangelical-Baptist Church of Georgia, though the congregation’s liturgical style and architecture is deeply influenced by Georgian culture and its Orthodox history.

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Hymn of petition. “The Lord’s Prayer” sung in the Georgian language

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For further reading:

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Benediction. “O, Lord, Our God,” Georgian Orthodox chant in Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey.

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Art below: A litany for worship, written by Ken Sehested, in honor of the Tbilisi Peace Cathedral bold vision of interfaith cooperation.