Members of a US State Department-sponsored delegation from the Republic of Georgia and representatives of various North American Orthodox jurisdictions held a roundtable discussion at Saint Vladimir Seminary here on December 18, 2003.
Initiated by the State Department at the request of the Georgian delegation, the roundtable offered an opportunity for the Georgians to learn about various aspects of Orthodox life in America. The objective of the Georgian delegation’s US visit was to become familiar with the diverse religious, cultural and social background of Americans and how religious communities interact with each other and with secular elements of the society, to discuss issues of religious freedom and tolerance, and to visit churches, mosques and other religious centers, as well as NGOs which focus on religious diversity.
The roundtable discussion focused on the style and methodology of higher Orthodox education in America with regard to equipping seminarians to minister in pluralistic society and providing an Orthodox response to modernity and secularism. Proselytism among Orthodox Christians in Eastern Europe and ecumenical relations and dialogue were also discussed.
Prior to the meeting, the Georgian delegation was given a tour of the seminary chapel and campus and met with Prof. John Erickson, seminary Dean.
The Republic of Georgia is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society in which about two thirds of the population is associated with the Georgian Orthodox Church. Other faith traditions, including Muslims and Armenian Apostolic, comprise about 30 percent of the population, while there also are small communities of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Catholics, Baptists, Khlists, Dukhabors and Molokans. Although the country has a long tradition of peaceful interconfessional coexistence, in recent years the question of religious intolerance has assumed greater saliency.
North American Orthodox participants included the Rev. Alexander Tandilashvili, a US Georgian Orthodox priest; Dr. Antonios Kireopoulos, Associate General Secretary for International Affairs and Peace for the National Council of Churches of Christ [NCCC]; Dr. Peter Bouteneff, Assistant Professor of Dogmatic Theology at Saint Vladimir Seminary, member of the NCCC’s Faith and Order Commission, and consultant to the Orthodox Church in America’s Department of External Affairs and Interchurch Relations; Dr. Paul Meyendorff, Professor of Liturgical Theology at Saint Vladimir Seminary, member of the OCA’s Office of Interchurch Relations and Ecumenical Witness, Orthodox Church in America, and member of the World Council of Church’s Faith and Order Commission; and Mr. David Wagschal, Secretary of the OCA’s Department of Interchurch Relations and Ecumenical Witness.
Georgian participants included Mr. Alexandre Tskitishvili, Editor-in-Chief of the weekly newspaper “Akhali Versia;” Mr. Simon Shapakidze, Senior Advisor, Human Rights Department, National Security Council; Ms. Tamara Iaseshvili, Head of the Human Rights Department, Georgian General Procuracy; and Mr. David Sharashenidze, Deputy Head of the Department of Foreign Relations for the Patriarchate of Georgia. Accompanying the delegation was Ms. Caryn Dardeli of the State Department’s Visitors Bureau and two interpreters.