FROM the late 1990’s onward, the Witnesses in Georgia enjoyed an outstanding increase in the number of publishers and interested ones. In 1998, no fewer than 32,409 individuals attended the Memorial of Christ’s death.
Many publishers, though, including elders, were relatively new in the truth and lacked experience. Most needed training in various aspects of their spiritual activities. But how would such training be provided?
Jehovah’s Organization Provides More Support
Arno and Sonja Tüngler, two graduates of the Gilead Extension School in Germany, were assigned to Georgia in March 1998. That same year, the Governing Body approved the opening of a country office in Georgia, supervised by the Russia branch.
A Country Committee soon began to oversee the preaching activity. Once our activities were legally registered, Bible literature was directly imported from what was then known as the Germany branch. Legal recognition also opened the way for us to purchase properties on which to build Kingdom Halls and branch facilities.
A Time of Spiritual Training
Many publishers had not been able to preach openly from door to door during the many years of ban under the Soviet regime. Arno Tüngler recalls: “Most publishers did a lot of street witnessing, but not all of them were used to going from door to door and keeping track of interest shown.”
Davit Devidze, who started serving in the newly established country office in May 1999, relates: “There was plenty to do in the field and at Bethel. There were things we had read about but had no idea how to do. So we observed and learned from the experienced brothers sent by the Governing Body.”
An intensive training period started for the brothers in Georgia. But as is often the case for those who move to serve where the need is greater, the benefits of giving training are not one-sided. (Prov. 27:17) Indeed, those who came to help learned much from the local brothers and sisters.
Local Witnesses Show Endearing Qualities
Arno and Sonja have fond memories of the warm welcome they received in the days following their arrival in Georgia. The local brothers and sisters did all they could to help them adjust to their new assignment.
Sonja remembers their generosity. She relates: “A couple who lived nearby kept bringing us delicious food. A sister took us in field service, introduced us to our new congregation, and told us a lot about Georgian culture. Another sister patiently taught us the Georgian language.”
Warren and Leslie Shewfelt, who were assigned to Georgia from Canada in 1999, said: “We became enamored of and humbled by the affection manifested by our Georgian brothers and sisters. All of them, including the young, freely expressed their feelings and love for one another.”
Those assigned to Georgia from foreign countries looked beyond the challenges they were facing and focused on the fine qualities of the local people. In turn, the humble and loving approach of the missionaries quickly endeared them to the Georgian brothers.
God-Fearing People Respond to the Truth
Throughout the 1990’s, many sincere individuals continued to respond to the truth. In the year 1998 alone, 1,724 persons were baptized. What moved so many Georgians to show interest in the truth?
Tamazi Biblaia, who served for many years as a traveling overseer, explains: “Love for God was one of the traditional values that had been instilled in the people. So when we shared the Bible’s message with them, they naturally responded to it.”
Davit Samkharadze, who serves as an instructor in the School for Kingdom Evangelizers, remarks: “When a person begins to study the Bible, relatives and neighbors often interfere. As they attempt to dissuade the student from pursuing his Bible study, many of them often end up studying the Bible themselves!”
As the Kingdom message spread, it changed the lives of many people. In April 1999, spiritual growth reached a new peak with 36,669 attending the Memorial.
“There Are Many Opposers”
Concerning his preaching activity in ancient Ephesus, the apostle Paul wrote: “A large door that leads to activity has been opened to me, but there are many opposers.” (1 Cor. 16:9) His words well describe the situation the Witnesses in Georgia faced just a few months after the landmark Memorial of 1999.
In August of that year, members of an extremist Orthodox group, led by the defrocked priest Vasili Mkalavishvili, organized a rally in Tbilisi and publicly burned our literature. This triggered a wave of persecution that lasted four years.
On October 17, 1999, a few religious extremists rallied a mob of about 200 and disrupted a meeting held by the Gldani Congregation in Tbilisi. Using wooden clubs and iron crosses, they assaulted those present, causing several Witnesses to be hospitalized.
Sadly, the attackers were not arrested, and assaults against the Witnesses continued. A number of government officials, including President Shevardnadze, strongly condemned those violent attacks, but no clear action was taken. In fact, police officers would usually arrive long after an attack had been carried out.
About the same time, a member of the Georgian parliament, Guram Sharadze, initiated an unprecedented smear campaign against the Witnesses. He accused the Witnesses of being dangerous. It seemed that “favorable times” for preaching the good news were a thing of the past.
Jehovah’s Organization Responds to Opposition
Jehovah’s organization responded promptly to the needs of the Witnesses in Georgia. The brothers received loving direction on how to react if they were attacked. And they were reminded of the reasons why true Christians at times endure persecution.
In addition, Jehovah’s organization took legal measures to defend our brothers in court. A brother who served in the Legal Department at the Georgia branch recalls: “During those four years, we filed more than 800 complaints in response to the actions of Vasili Mkalavishvili’s group. We asked officials and human rights organizations to help us. The world headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses launched an extensive publicity campaign, but nothing stopped the attacks.” *