Hidden behind two apartment blocks in an alley in the Georgian capital Tbilisi, Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili's church doesn’t look like much from the outside.
But for several years, his church has pushed for change in conservative Georgia, and it often goes against the grain, pushing barriers wherever and whenever it can.
So when Georgia's LGBT community faced violent protestors in the streets this summer, for example, Songulashvili's congregation marched in solidarity, condemning the attacks.
And when transgender women weren’t able to pay their rent during the pandemic, the church provided them with shelter.
The Metropolitan Bishop of Tbilisi, Songulashvili is the leader of this Evangelical-Baptist Church of Georgia and a professor of comparative theology and religious ethics. He used to be archbishop of Georgia's Baptist Church until his support for homosexuals and marginalised Muslim communities forced him to resign.
“We have decided to side with the LGBT community in their struggle against injustice and unfairness, both political, cultural and religious,” Songulashvili, 58, told Euronews,
“And like with anything in life, you need to pay for your choices and the church, and I have done so.”
Songulashvili says that his church, the Peace Cathedral, has also lost donors due to its openness to the LGBT community. But it still manages to run social projects for those in need, such as immigrants and internally displaced persons, thanks to donations from abroad.
When the COVID-19 lockdown happened last year, the church extended its support to the LGBT community and especially transgender women who had lost their jobs.
A closed society
While the church’s door is open to anyone, it is the help offered to the LGBT society that has attracted the most attention.
When it comes to LGBT rights, Georgia often makes negative headlines. In 2021, a cameraman died from his injuries after being attacked during Pride week, while protesters also overran the office of Tbilisi Pride and injured several people.
It wasn’t the first time. In 2013 a mob of clergy attacked LGBT demonstrators. It was this attack that made Songulashvili take a stand.
“Some do not want to support us, but to be perfectly honest, we could not care less,” he said.
"We are not dependent on anybody. We are not dependent on the state. We are not dependent on the European religious structures. This gives us the freedom to support the marginalised, to help and care for the poor and the ones in need.”
He suspects that is his stance on LGBT rights that is behind his church being suspended by the European Baptist Federation, as well as his stance on interfaith relations.
In a recent project, the church began building a synagogue and a mosque inside its church in cooperation with the Muslims and Jewish communities.
The idea was to create a ‘school of peace’, bringing religions together and pushing for shared understanding.
“I like to believe that this provides a beacon of hope after the attacks this July. While we witnessed attacks yet again as we saw in 2013, I believe that things are getting better," he said.
"It was more violent organized groups this summer supported by some religious and political groups who this time attacked journalists and not the members of the LGBT community, as we saw in 2013.”
More than 80 per cent of Georgians are said to be Orthodox Christians, with only a small minority in the country belonging to the Baptist Evangelical Church.
Songulashvili himself comes from a religious home. His father was also a bishop and he describes him as conservative.
As such, it wasn’t inevitable that Songulashvili would take a stand against homophobia. But after studying different religions and seeing injustice in countries such as Belarus, he changed his mind.
And If he can change, Songulashvili says, then others can too
Massive problems in the Orthodox Church
The Orthodox Church in Georgia has been at the centre of several scandals in recent years, facing accusations of paedophilia and corruption.
In September, leaked documents supposedly from the Georgian State Security Service, SSG, revealed criminal links within the Orthodox Church and close ties with Russian political circles.
This was controversial in Georgia, which has had strained relations with Russia since its 2008 war with the country.
The leaks also revealed attempts to hide homosexual liaisons between priests and clergy, something that Songulashvili sees as hypocrisy given the church's public stance on LGBT rights.
“It was quite painful to see the Orthodox Church stand on the side of the violent protesters this July,” said Songulashvili.
“But now you realize with these tapes that those people who stood by the attackers might themselves struggle and fight with their own identity. It makes it clear that some are arguing against LGBT people from a political standpoint.
"Because they want to benefit from that narrative and not only from a religious standpoint.”
The Orthodox Church has denied the allegations in the tapes and attacked journalists for sharing the information in a statement in the middle of September.
Although Songulashvili argues that monogamous homosexual relations based on mutual love and respect are fully acceptable from the theological and biblical point of view, it isn’t hard to find those who share his faith but disagree - even pointing to passages in the bible to defend their view.
But he says that even if some priests read the Bible differently, there “certainly isn’t anywhere justification for beating up and abusing homosexuals.”
“The Bible never speaks about sexual orientation. Jesus never spoke about it. The Apostles never spoke out it,” says Songulashvili.
“Christianity, which is based on Jewish tradition, is about unconditional love and acceptance of everyone.
“We are talking about hundreds of millions of people on this planet who are born LGBT, and I cannot believe in a God that would create a single person without the right to love and be loved."
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