Despite threats & protests, Festival of Hope draws 15,000
TBILISI, Georgia (BP) -- In the face of threats, arson attacks and protests, more than 15,000 Georgians turned out to hear the Gospel in the capital city of Tbilisi, Georgia, a small country on the Black Sea, nestled between Turkey and Russia.
During Franklin Graham's Festival of Hope, more than 1,000 Georgians indicated a desire to follow Christ -- a reaction that sparked a fire of enthusiasm in local churches.
It was a flame that burned on the heels of intense opposition.
In the weeks leading up to the festival, the Orthodox Church became vocal in its opposition to the evangelical celebration, said George Green,* a Christian worker who serves with his wife Lily* and their children in Georgia. He said priests threatened congregants with excommunication from the church if they or any family member attended, a punishment tantamount to eternal damnation.
They also warned that any show of support would negate their national identity and they would "not be Georgian" anymore, Lily said.
Just days before the festival, arsonists destroyed the sports center reserved for the event, forcing the organizers to scramble for another location. Many parks and venues refused to host them, but a local church offered its parking lot as a solution.
Although the lot was only large enough for 2,000 people, about 5,300 gathered each night in a standing-room-only crowd, leaning from windows of neighboring buildings and sitting on the walls of the property.
The crowd gathered in spite of protesters, who rallied to try to block the entrance.
"I walked through [the group of protesters] and there was a dark spiritual oppression, but as I entered the arena there was peace," George said. "Every person who came to the festival had to walk through that and experienced that."
"There were powerful spiritual forces at work," Lily said. "But our God is stronger."
The result was more than 1,000 people responding to God.
The festival, June 6-8, was a pivotal time for Georgian churches that have been timid about sharing their faith and uncertain that God could work through them, George said. The active presence of Jehovah's Witnesses, he said, has tarnished the reputation of Protestantism in the country. That, along with strong opposition by the Orthodox Church has robbed evangelicals of their voice, he said.
But the Festival of Hope pulled together 150 evangelical churches and trained them to share the Gospel and lead people to Christ. This has helped spark a fire in Georgian believers, Lily said.
"They invited their lost friends hesitantly -- didn't want to pressure them or put them in danger -- but when they witnessed them hearing and getting excited and raising their hands to indicate they wanted to follow Christ, they were in disbelief. They thought this wasn't possible," she said.
The Greens' pastor and partner in church planting, Gia, shares the enthusiasm of other believers.
"This is the beginning," he told George. "Now so many Georgians have training. We've seen the hunger and now we should just tell people constantly."
The Greens want to see this begin in the internally displaced persons (IDPs) camp where they have focused ministry efforts since January. In this small makeshift village of 300 people displaced since the civil war in 2008, the Greens have seen a Bible study begin and hope to see it become a church.
Believers Nica and Leila host this Bible study, and Leila was the first person in the village to accept the message of Christ.
"The whole village recognizes the change in Leila, and you can feel it spreading from their home," Lily said.
Twenty-four people from this village came to the Festival of Hope, and six indicated a desire to follow Christ.
Pray for Nica and Leila as they have been under constant spiritual attack since opening their home for Bible study, Lily said.
She also asked for prayer for the churches of Georgia to continue with the work that has begun.
"Pray for all the evangelical churches in Georgia and especially our church, Tbilisi Bible Church," Lily said, "that they would continue to have a passion for sharing the Word of God. They've been so quiet up until now."
Nicole Lee is a writer for the International Mission Board based in Europe. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).