Church delegation alarmed at destruction in South Ossetia

By agency reporter
September 11, 2008

The destruction of ethnic Georgian communities in South Ossetia, the deep wounds to local society and war damage to the capital city confronted a delegation from the World Council of Churches on the second half of a 3-7 September 2008 pastoral visit to Georgia and Russia.

The findings added urgency to concerns raised by government and church officials during a stop in Moscow.

Villages - destroyed house by house - were the first sight the delegation saw as it reached South Ossetia by road from North Ossetia. Entire neighbourhoods are razed, mostly by demolition, by fire, or both. The delegates also saw instances of looting and arson, as well as carloads of people who appeared to be vigilantes. The day of the visit was nearly a month after the end of the war.

South Ossetian representatives vowed to the delegation that they would never return the ethnically shared enclave to its status before the recent war. "We searched for contacts with Georgia," said Alan Pliev, deputy foreign minister, "but we were sent troops." The officials made sweeping condemnations of Georgia's leaders and its policies toward the enclave. The "Georgia for the Georgians" campaign of the early 1990s came in for special criticism, as it did in most meetings there and in Russia.

Earlier, deputy foreign minister Grigory Karasin of Russia had stressed the need for peace between ethnic groups "so that South Ossetia and Abkhazia will not be turning their status into uni-ethnic states". Karasin said the leaders of the two regions understand Moscow's concern, but that the Georgian attack on South Ossetia was a blow to inter-ethnic relations in the region.

Satellite photos show the widespread post-war destruction of the villages near Tskhinvali that were mostly ethnic Georgian. The delegation raised the issue with Karasin. He said his government has a team in The Hague to see the facts presented by the government of Georgia. The Russian army had strict instructions to stop the looting, he said.

"Refugees have the right to return. They should come back if they want," Karasin said, adding that the international community "has to create the right conditions for them." He said Georgian behaviour caused Russia's military action in Georgia.

Also in Moscow, an aid official of the Russian church told the WCC delegation, "A joint witness of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Georgian Orthodox Church is critical in this crisis." Margarita Nelyubova a veteran of church aid work in the Caucasus, said "We are not able to work in Georgia because of political constraints, but we want to know how to assist". Nelyubovais a member of the WCC Central Committee.

The delegation, like aid agencies, had not been able to enter South Ossetia from within Georgia, so members also expressed concern to Karasin about the lack of the humanitarian access promised by Russia in the ceasefire agreement.

The itinerary prepared for the delegation in South Ossetia included meetings with local leaders and visits to war-damaged areas of the city including a hotel where 184 people are staying because their homes were lost during the battle for the city in August.

"We are here to show the solidarity of the world church and to inform our churches of the situation," Rev. Jean-Arnold de Clermont, a French Protestant and president of the Conference of European Churches, told the local officials. Other members of the WCC delegation were Metropolitan Nifon of Targoviste (Romanian Orthodox Church; not in this meeting), Rev. László Lehel (director of Hungarian Interchurch Aid and representing ACT International), and Rev. Elenora Giddings Ivory and Jonathan Frerichs (WCC executives).

The group mentioned that a Baptist leader in Tbilisi had asked the WCC to "pray for repentance on all sides - for what we have all done wrong. Pray for confession and for reconciliation."

"What do we have to repent of?" replied Sonia Hubaeva, a presidential advisor, adding that her family had suffered abuse and expulsion from central Georgia. The bishop of a locally declared Orthodox diocese, who was also present at the meeting, said that he had witnessed 20 years of violence against Ossetians and that three members of his family had been killed.

On the outskirts of Tskhinvali, the delegation made another attempt to enter the buffer zone around South Ossetia to visit the local metropolitan of the Georgian Orthodox Church, who remains nearby with a few priests and nuns. Russian peacekeepers said they were not able to grant the request. It was the group's second unsuccessful effort to cross the ceasefire line. Thousands of residents reportedly remain in the zone under uncertain conditions.

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