An ecumenical church delegation witnessed last week a war-ravaged South Ossetia where whole neighborhoods had been razed or torched during their visit nearly a month after the war.
Members of the World Council of Churches paid Russian and Georgian Christian communities a visit on Sept 3-7, with the South Ossetia trip taking place in the latter half of the trip. The first sight they saw when they reached South Ossetia were villages that were destroyed house by house.
They also saw incidents of looting and arson, as well as carloads of people presumed to be vigilantes.
"We are here to show the solidarity of the world church and to inform our churches of the situation," the Rev. Jean-Arnold de Clermont, a French Protestant and president of the Conference of European Churches, told the local officials.
Delegates were told by South Ossetian representatives that they would never return the region to its pre-war status.
"We searched for contacts with Georgia," said Alan Pliev, deputy foreign minister, WCC, "but we were sent troops."
Officials strongly condemned Georgia's leaders and policies toward the territory.
Deputy foreign minister Grigory Karasin of Russia claims that Georgia's behavior forced Russian military action during his meeting with the WCC delegation.
The fighting began on Aug. 8 when Georgia ordered troops to stop the province of South Ossetia from seceding. In retaliation, Russia sent in forces to South Ossetia and bombed other areas in Georgia to support South Ossetia's desire to be independent from Georgia.
South Ossetia, which borders Russia, is predominantly made up of Russians. Although the province has an autonomous government, many South Ossetians still want to break away from Georgia to unite with the neighboring Russian province of North Ossetia.
While in Moscow, an aid official of the Russian church told the delegation that a joint witness of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Georgian Orthodox Church is needed during the crisis.
Aid agencies have not been able to enter South Ossetia via Georgia.
During the visit to South Ossetia, the delegation met with local leaders and visited war-damaged areas.
Members of the WCC delegation were Metropolitan Nifon of Targoviste of the Romanian Orthodox Church (not at the South Ossetia meeting); the Rev. László Lehel, director of Hungarian Interchurch Aid and representing ACT International); and WCC executives the Rev. Elenora Giddings Ivory and Jonathan Frerichs.