Labeled as Satanists and beaten for close to 10 minutes by a mob of angry locals, nine Assembly of God pastors experienced religious persecution firsthand on March 24. Ironically, the attack was reportedly instigated by an Orthodox priest.
"I want people to know what is going on in other parts of the world and ask Christians to pray," says Rev. B.G. Nevitt, pastor of Glad Tidings Assembly of God Church in Decatur, Illinois. "This happens to believers over there all the time."
During the assault, Nevitt sustained a broken finger on his left hand and numerous bruises, which left him with radiating pain in his arms, back and neck. Other pastors - from Ohio, Montana, Wisconsin, and elsewhere - were not as seriously injured.
Father Basili Mkalavishvili, a defrocked Georgian Orthodox priest, reportedly led the mob. According to the Associated Press, Mkalavishvili is well-known to human rights groups for attacking religious minorities in a nation that is 65 percent Georgian Orthodox. He was expelled from his church six years ago for opposing its ecumenical activities.
"But," says Nevitt, "I didn't see any Orthodox leaders condemning Mkalavishvili's actions either." He mentioned that Mkalavishvili still wears his priestly garments and a cross around his neck. Why would a priest attack a fellow believer? "Anything that is not of the true and pure Orthodox faith, he condemns as satanic," Nevitt says.
Indeed, Amnesty International reports that followers of Mkalavishvili, "who is radically opposed to the newer non-Orthodox Christian faiths, have demonstrated publicly carrying posters saying 'Orthodoxy or Death.'"
Georgia's Orthodox church leaders have complained they are struggling to retain members because many foreign religious groups have entered Georgia since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Georgia, a nation of approximately 5 million people located between Russia and Turkey, celebrates its 10th anniversary of independence from the Soviet Union this month.
Nevitt and the other U.S. pastors were conducting a church leaders' conference for Georgian believers March 22-23. On Friday the 23rd, a group of Mkalavishvili's followers tried to push their way into the conference to disrupt it. Nevitt says in the past, the group has "broken into services and meetings and drug people out in the streets. They've beaten them and burned all the literature and materials that they've had."
The local Christians, "knowing that this is a constant threat, had people positioned at doorways and windows to watch for anyone who might try to break in, and they barred the doors," says Nevitt. "Believers have this drill so down pat, there was no wondering what we should do. They immediately scooped up the children and put them into hiding. They gathered up the Bibles and immediately boxed them and threw them into a safe keeping place.
"I was so impressed by their knowledge of what to do, but saddened by the fact that they had to be so good at it," Nevitt adds.
What happened next, according to Nevitt, was a lot of shouting and intimidation while the mob of people tried to force their way in. When they couldn't enter, they damaged some vehicles that were outside. They also posted notices on the vehicles and on the doors to the building, "giving strict warning never to meet again," says Nevitt. The group threatened to come back later in the day with an even larger mob. They did not.
On Saturday, the pastors visited a property they helped to buy in hopes of establishing a Bible training center and humanitarian aid center. "We were on the property maybe 10 minutes," says Nevitt. "Then a car pulled up behind us, honked its horn, and Mkalavishvili and some of his strong men got out. They rang a bell and in the next instant there were 100 or better people there. And before I knew it, I was on the ground, and they were beating us with rocks, sticks, clubs and fists, and they were stomping on us. They pulled my hair, they spit on us, they picked me up by my belt and pulled me up and slammed me to the ground again and again." Nevitt adds that the attackers stole more than $3,500 worth of cameras and other equipment.
Nevitt says he could not understand the language being spoken by the mob, but one word that kept being repeated over and over was "Satan" or "Satanists," according to local translators.
According to Nevitt, the local police stationed directly across the street saw what happened but they turned their heads in the other direction. Nevitt says this is common: "I don't know how many unreported incidents there have been, but I know of at least seven other major incidents along this line with police reports being filed. And absolutely nothing has been done to arrest this man or do anything about this situation."
Nevitt continues, "When I got back, I did hear from an official with the Georgian government. He promised he would do everything in his power to see that some kind of justice is done." But, Nevitt says, he has doubts. "Nothing has ever been done to this man so far. In fact, it is rumored that Mkalavishvili has ties with some high government officials and backing by intelligence agencies such as the KGB."
The mob, says Nevitt, "had to be organized to some degree. We were at this property so brief a period of time, for them to know that we were there, to have this group organized, to have them situated in such a way to ambush the pastors, they knew what was going on."
Mkalavishvili's group burned books printed for Jehovah's Witness members earlier this month and burned tons of Baptist literature in a separate incident, an Associated Press report said. Jehovah's Witness adherents also mentioned that police were nearby but did not interfere when their books were burned.
According to Amnesty International, in a separate incident, Tbilisi police faced criticism for allegedly failing to respond when followers of Mkalavishvili assaulted members of a Jehovah's Witness congregation. Extracts from a video of the attack were shown on Georgian television, prompting widespread condemnation, even from President Eduard Shevardnadze who called for the attackers to be charged. But to Amnesty International's knowledge, Mkalavishvili has evaded being charged or prosecuted for that incident and for attacks on Pentecostal believers.
"If someone is prosecuted in this case, it will only be because they attacked Americans," says Nevitt. "If Georgians had been beaten, nobody would have done a thing." Nevitt says that Georgian Christians often face grave persecution. "I was told that if the mob had seen my Georgian interpreter with us, they would have killed him."