TBILISI Georgians prayed for their country on Thursday and buried soldiers killed in a war with Russia as the nation marked a religious holiday in somber mood.
In a cemetery on a hill overlooking the capital Tbilisi, the remains of 10 Georgian soldiers were lowered into a single long grave, their metal coffins placed end-to-end, after military band played a haunting funeral march.
A gentle wind picked up dust from the fine, dry earth and a six-gun salute rang out. Mourners stood beside the grave, unsure if their loved ones were in the coffins because DNA tests have yet to identify the remains.
"I don't know which one is my son," cried an elderly woman holding a photograph of a man in military uniform. "We've been waiting for him for two weeks."
A pregnant woman stood in the shade as the coffins were carried to the graveside, draped in the red and white Georgian flag. She said her husband had been killed, but she was still waiting for confirmation that he was one of those being buried.
More burials were due later on Thursday and the woman said she would return, if the heat did not become unbearable.
At least 263 Georgian soldiers were killed in a war with Russia that flared after a Georgian attempt on August 7-8 to recapture the breakaway, pro-Russian province of South Ossetia.
In Tbilisi's riverside Sioni church, hundreds of worshippers joined in a three-hour service led by Orthodox Patriarch Ilia II to mark the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, the entry into heaven of the mother of Jesus.
"Georgian people are strong, spiritually and physically, and no enemy can break them down ... Let us ask God to deliver us from seen and unseen enemies and turn them all into friends," said the white-bearded Ilia.
Believers crossed themselves repeatedly as a bell chimed and a column of bearded priests filed through the church in vestments of red, green, white or gold.
"Today we have a great crisis in Georgia. A big war is starting, I think. Our patriarch told us to pray every day," said Ucha Andguladze, an unemployed 25-year-old man.
Russia says it intervened to stop Georgian "genocide" against South Ossetians, many of whom hold Russian passports. This week Moscow said it was recognizing South Ossetia and a second rebel Georgian region, Abkhazia, as independent states under its protection -- a move that drew strong international condemnation.
"We should be asking God every day to give us back Abkhazia and Samachablo," the patriarch said, using a patriotic term for South Ossetia. "Abkhazia and Samachablo are and will be indivisible parts of Georgia."
In the dim interior of the vaulted church, worshippers lit candles and kissed the wooden frame and glass cover of a portrait of Christ, or stood quietly reading from prayer books.
Saints stared down from the walls in icons that have been blackened over the centuries so that many of the figures appear only as dark silhouettes crowned with pale haloes.
"We have so many threats, we have people crying," said Nino Dzigua, a young woman wearing an orange headscarf.
"Today the whole of Georgia prays to Saint Mary that she saves Georgia from wars, from damages, from the devil," the
23-year-old accountant said.
(Additional reporting by Niko Mchedlishvili; Editing by Catherine Evans)