Georgia borders on Europe and Asia - a country, which was over time shaped by different people and cultures. Still today, their religions, traditions and customs are forming a mosaic carpet of religious and cultural diversity. In spirit of this diversity, participants of the House of One are meeting up with friends and partners from Israel, Pakistan, Kazakhstan and the USA in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. Organized by our Georgian partner project, the Peace Cathedral, all participants will embark on a journey of interreligious learning and togetherness.
A travel journal with new impressions on a daily basis you will be able to find in our stories on Instagram and Facebook. For a more detailed report, check out our website. Day by day we will take you along on this interreligious journey.
Day 1: Berlin - Tbilisi
The last preparations are in progress, the suitcases are packed. The anticipation of interreligious dialogue, getting to know new people and meeting old friends is immense. From Berlin, a glass of honey and a House of One-Goodiebag as gifts to our hosts are traveling to Tbilisi alongside our participants.
At the same time, luggage is also being prepared in the USA, Kazakhstan and Israel. In Israel, it's not just suitcases. Rabbi Golan Ben-Chorin, project ambassador of the House of One in Israel, had to find packaging for a Torah scroll. The sacred Jewish scripture is a gift from the House of One to the Peace Cathedral in Tbilisi, a gift made possible by donations. The Torah will be brought to the Peace Cathedral synagogue as a culminating event at the end of the week-long trip during a solemn ceremony. More on that later.
First of all, Bishop Malkhaz receives roll and the Rabbi at the airport in Tbilisi.
Day 2, Monday: Tbilisi - multi religious city
The first day is a day of getting to know both the group in itself and the city, in which Europe and Asia meet and where the passages of trade caravans from east to west have crossed over the course of centuries. Tbilisi is surrounded by mountains on three sides, the roads are often steep, narrow alleys end in small squares. Lovingly renovated buildings alternate with ruinous structures and modern new constructions.
Numerous places of worship exist and are worth visiting. The cultural diversity of the city is reflected not least in the large number of different places of worship: After visiting a richly decorated Armenian church, the group will take part in midday prayers in a mosque, which originally arose from a compulsory community and is now used jointly by Shiites and Sunnis, and then in a prayer in an Orthodox synagogue.
The religious places also mirror the many facettes of the citys history. The Roman-Catholic Cathedral of the assumption of the holy virgin mary (photo below) was founded in 13th century, confiscated in soviet times, the sacret paintings were covered up with white paint and the building was used as a gym for decades. The church is now being used as a place of prayer again for over 20 years. The artistic shaping however is not finished yet, artists are still working on the murals on the inside of the building.
Bishop Rusudan, who also belongs to the Peace Cathedral, is one of the artists who are looking to redesign the cathedral. She later on also tells the group about the Yazidi community of Georgia. A poster she created herself (photo below) will be handed over to the Yazidi community on occasion of a Yazidi religious ceremony the following sunday.
At 36 degrees Celsius, the cool restaurant looking out over the city is the perfect place to rest and to get to know all the other participants. They traveled to Tbilisi from six different countries on three continents. The communication switches between German, English, Turkish and Georgian. What does every single participant expect of the days to come?
"I am looking forward to meeting new people who also burn to engage in interreligious dialogue and who have the courage to stand up for it", says Renate Franke, member of the Foundation Board of the House of One. Looking further ahead is Ismail Al, a German who is currently employed in Kazakhstan. Al states: "We need courageous people in the future, who are curious about our diversity."
What unites everyone in the group is the hope for a more intense interfaith exchange and understanding. And of course the Russian war on Ukraine is a constant topic, the search for solutions, the shared concerns. The conflict is in Georgia, that shares multiple hundred kilometres of border with Russia, is very present.
Day 3, Monday: Tbilisi/Kazbegi - Into the silence of the mountains
The group embarks in the early morning and makes a short stop at a market to stock up on the necessities for the coming hike. Even on the way into these secluded mountain regions one stumbles upon the effects of the war on Europe. A seemingly endless queue of trucks lines up. It is the road fom Armenia to Russia, which can only be used by the trucks at night. Again, the conversations are revolving around Ukraine. What is the war doing to the people? Why are we still not able to live together peacefully? The war challenges us and gives reason to rethink better, peaceful ways to resolve conflicts.
The next stop is the church in Ananuri, called Ananuri Castle, on the bottom of the Carpathians. In sovjet times the paintings of the Saints on the walls of the orthodox house of worship were painted white. By now, some of the artworks from the 17th century have been recovered. Among them is Saint Georg with his weapon. The Muslim participants of our group are asking their Christian fellows: "Why are your Saints carrying weapons?" Just like this, again and again conversations are coming up that require a change of perspective. "We are getting to know our own blind spots and realize, that we do not reflect on what seems like a matter of course to us.", Bishop Malkhaz explains.
Our next destination - located at 2.500 metres of height - is a challenge for the entire group. It is a cemetery. Buried are soldiers of the German Armed Forces, who were forced to construct the passroad as prisoners of war. Within our group are members who are decendants of the German perpetrators and decendants of those who were persecuted and killed. The feelings are mixed, the situation touches and affects everyone in a different way. One thought unites the group from three continents, that assembled by coincidence: war and violence and the victims and suffering that result in it, have to be prevented at all costs. What can a single person do? The fact alone, that a Jewish-Muslim-Christian group can peacefully engage on this place of suffering and talk about the past, is a sign of hope. Ismael Al describes it in his own words: "I have never been so comfortable in a group of strangers, there is so much respect here."
The Gergeti Trinity Church is next on the plan. Located on top of a mountain, the Georgian orthodox Church is not only a destination for believers. It is a popular location to visit on a trip, not only for tourists, but also for Georgians. The darkness inside has a calming effect. The Christian paintings, symbols and icons animate to hushed conversations. What connects us? What leaves questions unanswered?
It is raining. The hike into the mountains is postponed onto the next day. That way, there is more time for conversations in our accomodations in Juta valley. Bishop Malkhaz nudges and challenges the travelers to new ways of thinking. How can the interreligious work be improved to be more effective? "For the first time we are sitting together as Muslims, Christians and Jews and can help each other to develop theological peace. I want to be challenged by you and deepen my knowledge. How can we become more fruitful?", he asks the group.
Day 4, Wednesday: KazbegiJuta Valley – Into the silence of the mountains.
„Silence is the best prayer.“ With these words announces Bishop Malkhaz the hike to the mountains. The first thousand steps are the hardest. The hikers come across small brooks and blooming meadows. The narrow paths wind through green meadows. No one speaks at first. Later, the hikers get together in ever-changing constellations, start talking and get to know each other better. Barefoot they wade through a brook. The water is ice cold and tastes delicious. Helping hands are extended for everyone to get to the other side comparatively dry.
Rabbi Golan Ben-Chorin uses the break for a creative prayer exercise called "The Eagle" combining a traditional Jewish prayer with a martial-art movement. The groups joins in. A small flock of eagles on a mountain meadow in the Carpathians.
In the evening, the group heads back to Tbilisi, past the queues of trucks that have not shortened in the meantime.
Day 5, Thursday: Peace Cathedral – Place of hope
The day in Tbilisi comfortably starts a little later for the group. The first stop on the way is the Cathedral of Samtavissi. The orthodox house of worship in the village of the same name northwest of Tbilisi is built on the ruins of one of the founding churches of Georgia’s Christianization. A rose garden blooms in a variety of colors where a fortress wall protected the village’s residents more than a thousand years ago. Inside the church, the participants light candles. A moment of silence in which the group commemorates the over hundred Christian believers in Nigeria who died in an attack on a church on Pentecost, as well as the victims of the amok car drive in Berlin, in which a woman died and many young people were injured.
Accompanied by gusts of rain, the journey continues. Georgia is famous for its wines. Upon arrival at the winery, the group learns everything about pressing and fermenting, about quality and purity and about facets of taste.
During lunch, a conversation about Georgia, about the challenging socio-political situation of the country, about the responsibility of political and ecclesiastical power and about the hope of a young generation, unfolds. The meeting fades out to Georgian and Hebrew guitar sounds.
In the evening, back in Tbilisi, the group visits the peace Cathedral, the partner project of the House of One. In a former warehouse, built by German prisoners of war, a Mosque and a Synagogue are being added to the existing church, as well as a fourth space for everyone to meet. The “House of One of Georgia” is well advanced.
Renate Franke, who visited the Peace Cathedral once before in 2017 as a member of the House of One Foundation Board, is impressed. “Back then it was still an improvised church in a former warehouse,” Franke recalls, “Today I’m entering a House of One: a Synagogue, a Mosque and a Church under one roof and a room with a huge table for exchange, where we will also eat later on.”
There is still work to be done. Other things are deliberately left unfinished, to be added by the following generations. Every structural nuance tells its own story, whether through the materials, the structural creation or its significance in sacred use.
Bishop Rusudan and Bishop Malkhaz, together with Rabbi Ben-Chorin and Pastor Hohberg, conspire on how the upcoming presentation of the Torah, which Ben-Chorin brought from Haifa, can be followed through. What liturgy is appropriate? Especially since the Synagogue will not be officially opened until next year. How can as many people participate as possible?
During the conversation, the participants also learn about the existential threats the congregation of the Peace Cathedral faced as a reaction to them taking a stand against homophobia and for a better coexistence and appreciation of the societies diversity. It was attempted to prohibit the interreligious building from being constructed.
What keeps on driving the people surrounding Bishop Malkhaz is the faith and hope of doing what is right as well as the obligation to work on a better togetherness as well as on a society that is more aware on its behaviour and actions. Not just in theory, not just one day per week, but as the core of their work.
Day 6, Friday: Nadarbazevi Lake – Interfaith Pilgrimage
A core principle of this well planned out journey is to simply welcome all that may come. Being open-minded and without prejudiced expectations, staying curious and practicing personal withdrawal are good ingredients for the participants. It’s important to not know everything exactly beforehand. If you don’t have to stick to the schedule, opportunities arise to share thoughts with one another or to let your thoughts run free. In this way you can give space to spontaneously emerging conversations or just enjoy views you otherwise would have missed.
Planned for today is a 14-kilometre hike. The driver drops off the group on a hill about 50 kilometres northeast of Tbilisi. Only three shepherds will cross their path in the course of the day. The participants do not know where the path will lead them, only Bishop Malkhaz does. The hikers experience the impressive nature, valleys and find themselves on a ridge route, surrounded by mountains on both sides. Fascinating are the countless shades of green, depending on the incidence of the sun, and the pleasantly cooling breeze. From time to time conversations spawn between two or three members of the group, at times the group just walks side by side in silence, letting the nature surrounding leave its impression.
At some point, Bishop Malkhaz asks everyone to pick up a rock, which is supposed to represent a perceived burden in the individual lives. Carrying it along, one should quietly think about how to deal with this burden, only to then let go of it on top of the hill by throwing the rock onto the other, already gathered, proverbial burdens.
The group continues to climb over large rocky outcrops to Uplisziche. A town is carved into the Limestone-cave. The up to 3.000-year-old spaces still give an idea of their use. People settled in Uplisziche already in the Bronze Age.
The destination is a simple courtyard, where a married couple has invited the group to dinner. A long table is set up in the living room. A Turkish soap is on TV, later the News – on mute. Delicacies from Georgian cuisine are literally piled up on the table: salty cheese, freshly baked sourdough bread, fried, smoked and boiled fish from the neighbour, pickled vegetables, cucumber and tomato salad from their own cultivation, later strawberries and cherries. Georgians have a special name for this feast: supra. It is mandatory for the welcoming gesture to serve much more than the guests could finish.
Toast are also part of a supra. Our host honours many people and good principles, which are translated simultaneously. Each time the guests raise their glasses, which are filled to the rim with white wine from two different kinds of grapes. It does not mean one has to drink a lot, a little polite sip is enough. The glasses of the Muslim participants and all those who do not wish to drink alcohol are filled with mountain water or homemade lemonade with berries in it.
A nice observation: It is not necessary to translate everything. Some things everyone can understand immediately.
The host is a member of the Peace Cathedral. It is equally easy to spark his excitement about the House of One. The search for peace among people, which the idea of the House of One is based on, applies to the whole world. In Georgia, it is even more essential, since the country itself experienced war and occupation not long ago.
After the meal, everyone sits down in the courtyard under the wine canopy. Rabbi Ben-Chorin initiates the Shabbat. The Kabbalat Shabbat (reception of Shabbat) is somewhat compressed and this time without an instrument. Nevertheless, everyone, including the non-Jewish participants, is touched by this moment of mindfulness and pausing.
Day 7, Saturday: Tbilisi – Peace Cathedral
After all the pilgrimage and visits, the Saturday belongs to the body of work of Bishop Malkhaz, the Peace Cathedral. Like at the House of One, here are Synagogue, Church and Mosque to be part of one building. Furthermore one can find a table of encounter (called: Hohbergs Table) outdoors side to side with the Church. In the morning, the Muslim participants get together with their Christian and Jewish fellows for the first Muslim prayer in this place.
Following that, Renate Franke, Pastor Gregor Hohberg and Sophia Athié present the idea of the House of One to the rest of the group. Together, they encourage everyone to think of peaceful intentions in form of wishes or prayers and to write them on the floor in chalk. Soon Georgian, English, Hebrew and German words can be read on the concrete. “Help us, God, to love those we do not like”, Bishop Rusudan left as a message in entangled letters.
The messages, scratched onto the floor in different languages, are a symbol for the interreligious dialogue that can unite people across the borders and language barriers. The chalk was distributed among the participants and will travel back to their countries alongside the members from Kazakhstan, Israel, Germany and the USA. Back home, everyone wants to invite others to join in such a ritual, collect peaceful intentions and donations for the House of One and again pass on the chalk.
Following this interactive House of One-action the group thanked Bishop Malkhaz and the community of the Peace Cathedral for their hospitality. On the part of the Muslim community, the group members Mustafa Sahin, Mustafa Türkaslan and Insmael gifted a crafty relief from Kazakhstan. Rabbi Ben-Chorin brought a Mesusa, a scripture capsule that is placed at the doorframe of a Jewish household. It is the Mesusa that once decorated the entrance to the home of his recently passed father, Rabbi Ben-Chorin. Pastor Hohberg handed over three gifts, one for each sacred space. They were prepared by a project partner of the House of One in the Central African Republic. For the Peace Cathedral, it was a handmade crucifix which shows the blessing Christ, for the Peace Synagogue a bast basket made for the spices used in the Havdala ceremony and an angel for the Peace Mosque. The gits are to be a symbolic coonnection to tie the partner projects together.
While most members of the group follow their individual plans in the afternoon, Rabbi Ben-Chorin and Bishop Malkhaz prepare the Torah scroll for the upcoming ceremony on the next day. It is a gift from friends of the House of One, organized by foundation board-member Renate Franke. The scroll is still wrapped up in fabric and safely stored in the hard case it came in from Israel. Carefully, the two chaplains unbox the scroll, which is rolled up on two wooden bars. Together, they unroll the parchment until the reach the proper verse and place it in a decorated, wooden etui. This is the way it will be carried into the synagogue on the next day.
At the end of the day, a ceremony for the end of Shabbat takes place in the Peace Synagogue, the Havdala. Rabbi Ben-Chorin calls it a “creative service”, because he changed up some elements. During the Havdala ceremony, the individual elements should be experienced in different sensual ways to become aware of the ending Shabbat and the beginning new week. Aside from a candle that is braided out of six strings of wax and whose light and warmth can be seen and felt, a small box filled with different spices, called the Besamim, whose scent should be inhaled and a pint of wine to taste are part of the ceremonial elements. The tiny bast basket from the Central African Republic, filled with spices, served as Besamim-tin. At the end of the ceremony, which also marks the end of Shabbat, the Havdala candle is extinguished with the remaining wine. The sizzle can clearly be heard by everyone. Now everyone wishes “Schawua Tow”, a good new week. Rabbi Ben-Chorin has accompanied the entire ceremony with guitar and chant, during simpe passages, all members of the group were able to join in.
The overall spirit of the service has clearly touched every single member of the group. Regardless of their religion, everyone joined in, sang along and experienced the ritual together. A special, spiritual exerience.
Day 8, Sunday: Tbilisi – A Torah for the Synagogue
The Torah scroll, which was already prepared on the day before, will be merrily brought into the Synagogue with both a Jewish ceremony and a multi religious procession. Beforehand, a service in liturgical hospitality with Rabbi and Imam was held on the occasion of the orthodox pentecost, which traditionally takes place one week after the pentecost celebration in Germany. The floor of the Church has been covered in hay and colourful petals. Rabbi Ben-Chorin from Haifa, Pastor Hohberg from Berlin and Sheikh Mirtagi Asadov collectively move into the room. The ceremony takes almost two hours and is filled with symbolic actions of all religions, exegesis of Torah, Bible and Koran as well as chant.
While the last supper is being handed out, the Jewish representatives leave the Church to prepare the Torah scroll in front of the Peace Cathedral.Separately, the Torah scroll is carried by the local Jewish "Shamash", lay leaders, while the wooden box, the Tik, is passed on to everyone present on the way to the Synagogue. Upon arrival, the scroll is being placed back into the Tik. Another important step has been taken on the way to the Synagogue’s official opening next year.
Still filled with impressions of this special ceremony, the group would have loved to take a moment to themselves together. But the invitation of the Yazidi community in Georgia is an opportunity no one ants to pass on. As guests, the travellers have been invited to join a Yazidi high holiday. Despite the heat, everyone is on their feet.
In the afternoon, the group plants a pomegranate tree in the garden near the Peace Cathedral. The pomegranate is a symbol for fruitfulness and love in many religions since the old ages. In the Koran, a prophet recommends eating pomegranates to cleanse one’s body of hate and jealousy. And in Judaism a saying states that the pomegranate has exactly 613 seeds, a parallel to the number of Mizwot, the religious commandments.
However, this pomegranate tree in Tbilisi is planted in commemoration of Rabbi Tovia Ben-Chorin, father of Golan Ben-Chorin and Co-founder of the House of One. Tovia Ben-Chorin’s wish was to be reborn as a tree. A touching gesture of a new beginning, especially regarding the Jewish tradition of serving pomegranates at the celebration of the New Year, where they are supposed to promise a good and sweet new year. The planting of the tree is also a hint at the Garden of One, a partner project of the House of One in Haifa, which was initiated by Golan Ben-Chorin. A project of reconciliation between Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Baha’i people in Israel. And one might even think of the Christian reformer Martin Luther and his quote: “If the world were to end tomorrow, I would still plant a little apple tree today.”
As the travellers are getting together for the last time on this journey to sit and eat, they gather the results. What was particularly touching on this journey? What can we take from this for our everyday life? What were we able to learn from each other about differences and similarities of our religions? Where did we discover new things or additions to our knowledge and where did we experience things to be handled with care or even avoided? One thing is for sure: every single person will fondly remember these special days, the understanding across language barriers and religious diversity, the kind hosts from Georgia and the shared moments.