TBILISI (Reuters) – Georgians flocked to church on Thursday to pray for their country, reeling from military defeat by Russia, and their Orthodox Patriarch asked God to give them back two breakaway provinces backed by Moscow.
In Tbilisi, hundreds of worshippers packed into the riverside Sioni church for a three-hour service led by Patriarch Ilia II to mark the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, the entry into heaven of the mother of Jesus.
“Georgian people are strong, spiritually and physically, and no enemy can break them down … Let us ask God to deliver us from seen and unseen enemies and turn them all into friends,” said the white-bearded Ilia.
Believers crossed themselves repeatedly as a bell chimed and a column of bearded priests filed through the church in vestments of red, green, white or gold.
“Today we have a great crisis in Georgia. A big war is starting, I think. Our patriarch told us to pray every day,” said Ucha Andguladze, an unemployed 25-year-old man.
Georgian forces attempted on August 7-8 to recapture the breakaway, pro-Russian region of South Ossetia but were overwhelmed by Russia’s military in a war that lasted just a few days. Russia says it intervened to stop Georgian “genocide” against South Ossetians, many of whom hold Russian passports.
This week Russia said it was recognizing South Ossetia and a second rebel Georgian region, Abkhazia, as independent states under its protection — a move that drew strong international condemnation.
“We should be asking God every day to give us back Abkhazia and Samachablo,” the patriarch said, using a patriotic term for South Ossetia. “Abkhazia and Samachablo are and will be indivisible parts of Georgia.”
In the dim interior of the vaulted church, worshippers lit candles and kissed the wooden frame and glass cover of a portrait of Christ, or stood quietly reading from prayer books.
As the service opened, a group of male singers burst into deep, resonant song on one side of the church and were answered by the lighter sound of a mixed-voice choir on the other.
Saints stared down from the walls in icons that have been blackened over the centuries so that many of the figures appear only as dark silhouettes crowned with pale haloes.
“We have so many threats, we have people crying,” said Nino Dzigua, a young woman wearing an orange headscarf.
“Today Georgians are praying for Mary and for our country. Today the whole of Georgia prays to Saint Mary that she saves Georgia from wars, from damages, from the devil,” the 23-year-old accountant said in English.
In a country which adopted Christianity as early as the fourth century, the festival of Mary is a national holiday with special significance. According to a Georgian legend, it was Mary herself who gave Georgians their homeland and exhorted them to look after it.