Churches delegation concerned about South Ossetia after visit problems

By agency reporter
September 5, 2008

A pastoral delegation sent by the World Council of Churches (WCC) to Georgia and Russia has not been able to visit South Ossetia from the Georgian side of the ceasefire line. Unable to make the half-hour drive to Tskhinvali from within Georgia, they are now traveling thousands of kilometers to reach the enclave from the Russian side instead.

The ecumenical delegation could not get a guarantee of safe passage from the authorities inside South Ossetia. The route should by now be a corridor for aid, but the humanitarian access stipulated by the ceasefire agreement in mid-August is apparently not being honored. Armed groups are accused of acts of violence in the area.

Government and aid officials in Georgia told the WCC group that up to 7,000 ethnic Georgians are still living in South Ossetia under uncertain conditions. Even the Red Cross has largely been denied access, they said, but the Georgian Orthodox Church has limited access to a few of them.

Early in the war, with help from the Russian Orthodox Church, Georgian Orthodox Patriarch Ilia II secured permission to visit a bishop and a few priests and nuns who have stayed in South Ossetia. Since then the church has brought in food and brought out Georgian casualties that were still lying unburied several days after the war.

“We want to express our immense gratitude that you have come in the difficult situation Georgia is facing now,” the Georgian Patriarch told the WCC delegation.

“Be assured we are with you at this difficult time,” said Archbishop Nifon of Targoviste, Romania, the delegation head. “We have been following the situation in your country with great sorrow,” said Rev. Jean-Arnold de Clermont, president of the Conference of European Churches. “At the same time, we are greatly impressed by your visit to South Ossetia and by the public declarations in favor of peace by the two patriarchates of Russia and Georgia.”

“Russia is our neighbour and we should have good relations with it,” Ilia noted.

In Georgia the WCC delegation also met Armenian Orthodox and Baptist leaders, a member of parliament and a government minister responsible for refugees, the country’s public defender, member agencies of Action by Churches Together (ACT) International and displaced people living in camps and schools.

About two-thirds of the 150,000 people displaced into Georgia by the conflict have now returned to their homes. Most of the nearly 50,000 still displaced are housed in school buildings. Even as more durable solutions become urgent, ACT member agencies and local church aid workers told the WCC delegation of many gaps in meeting immediate needs.

“With schools in Georgia scheduled to open in one week, the people we met do not know what will happen next,” said Rev. Laszlo Lehel, director of Hungarian Inter-Church Aid and representing ACT on the delegation. Some 26,000 of these people are from South Ossetia, with little immediate prospect of returning home.

Lia Gogitze, a woman from South Ossetia living in a Tbilisi school, told the delegation, “We lived so well there with our orchards and livestock. It was like a small paradise. Here we share one cup.” Satellite photos show her village, Kemerti, as one of dozens of communities in the enclave heavily damaged by fire in the days since the major fighting ceased.

To visit the enclave the delegation is making a 4,000-kilometer detour via Moscow and North Ossetia. When they reach the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, they will be just 40 kilometers from where they were on their first day in Georgia.

In South Ossetia the ecumenical visitors will meet with church leaders, local officials and the recently displaced residents who have now mostly returned from North Ossetia. Also of concern are the ethnic Georgian residents still thought to be in the enclave after weeks of violence and many reports of looting, arson and forced evictions.

The trip will end in Moscow with visits to the Russian Orthodox Church and the government. In addition to Nifon, de Clermont and Lehel, the delegation includes the Rev Elenora Giddings-Ivory and Mr Jonathan Frerichs from the WCC secretariat in Geneva.

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