A Georgian Priest in a Divided Parish
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Father Isaiah speaks softly, his crossed hands resting on the table, his eyes gazing at the embroidered birds and horses on the white cotton tablecloth which brightens up the room in his residence in the monastery of Nikozi.

“My mother used to embroider curtains, tablecloths and napkins with swallows, birds and flowers,” recalls the 57-year-old Metropolitan of Nikozi and Tskhinvali.

Father Isaiah’s visits to Nikozi, a village in central Georgia which is part of his parish, are increasingly rare. The parish is split in two by the administrative border with the country’s contested region of South Ossetia. Father Isaiah, whose rank roughly equates to a bishop, usually lives on the other side of the divide, in the monastery of Largvisi in the South-Ossetian-controlled area of Akhalgori. 

Traveling the 92 kilometers from there to Nikozi is getting harder by the day.

Russia’s 2008 war with Georgia forced thousands of ethnic Georgians to flee South Ossetia; over a third were from Father Isaiah’s district of Akhalgori, according to Amnesty International. For those who remain in Akhalgori, freedom of movement to Georgian-controlled villages is restricted and depends on the discretion of the de facto South Ossetian authorities.

“You need a pass to cross the administrative borderline, which is issued by the Tskhinvali administration. It lasts either three or six months,” explains the Metropolitan. 

A Russian checkpoint sits 500 meters from the end of Nikozi and Tskhinvali, South Ossetia’s main town, is easily visible from the roof of the monastery’s episcopal residency. But the proximity facilitates little.  

“Sometimes it can take months for a new pass to be approved,” Father Isaiah adds.

For two years and seven months, Father Isaiah couldn’t leave Akhalgori because he didn’t have the pass. The last time Tskhinvali granted him permission to cross into Georgian-controlled territory was mid-2015. This is not exactly the pastoral mission of which Father Isaiah dreamed  as a novice priest, but, somehow, his life in the Georgian Orthodox Church has always been connected with conflict.


 


Born Zurab Chanturia in Tsaalenjikha, a town in western Georgia, he was serving in a parish in Abkhazia when war broke out in 1992 over Tbilisi’s control of the region. The horrors and hardships of civil war that he witnessed while fleeing Sokhumi, Abkhazia’s central town, marked him for life.    

He took his vows in Martkopi, a few kilometers outside Tbilisi, where the local monastery had been turned into a temporary shelter for all those working for the Georgian Orthodox Church in Abkhazia. When, in November 2000, he was ordained as a priest, a rusty, red train carriage outside the Nikozi monastery became his new home.

“The monastery was in bad shape. The abandoned carriage in the garden was pretty much all that belonged to the eparchy,” he recalls. “It was the only place for relaxing. After mass in the train carriage, we served tea and used to read books inside.”

Year by year, brick by brick, the monastery was reborn and so was the village. After a difficult start, youngsters from both Nikozi and surrounding villages came to help out, bringing new life to this community near conflict-ridden South Ossetia. Father Isaiah added his own touch.

A former aspiring animator and student of award-winning Georgian film and theater director Gela Kandelaki, he built an animation studio to teach young people animation,reading and art. 

When war with Russia over South Ossetia broke out in August 2008, the village found itself on the frontline. Explosives hit the monastery’s residence; altogether, Father Isaiah counted 32 rockets that fell into the church area. No one was injured, though, and somehow the community grew stronger.

“War isn’t desirable or welcome, but, as we have lived through it, now I can’t imagine any different way. During the war, we all become relatives. We were friends from the front and apparently this matters very much,” he explains. 

Nuns from Nikozi were sent to the monastery in Akhalgori, then under Tbilisi’s control. Father Isaiah says he stayed with a newly arrived priest, Father Antoni Chakvetadze, in Nikozi “and watched the houses burning.”  


 


The flames also reduced the animation studio to ashes. But once life returned to the village after the 2008 cease-fire agreement, Father Isaiah was adamant about rebuilding it. Foreign donors provided much-needed cash for the equipment and the community provided the muscle power.

The two-storey building now welcomes about 150 children, who, aside from film animation, study computer graphics, handicrafts, ceramics, painting, music and English.

The school plays a central role in the Nikozi Film Festival, an annual event that Father Isaiah helped found that attracts film animation professionals from all over the world to the frontline village.

Inspiration came, in part, from a trip Father Isaiah had taken to visit an Orthodox seminary in Alaska, he says. “In Alaska, I saw locals dancing and playing music. I thought that our cultural program should have that as well.” In total, 41 people came from Alaska to Nikozi’s first animation festival in 2010.

But he still can’t invite his parishioners from the other side of the de facto borderline. 


 


September, 2018 Religious Beliefs

Chai Khana
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