Armenian Catholics: a Minority Within a Minority

One of the first things that struck me as I started to work on this story was that Armenian Catholics are a minority, within a minority.

Writer and photographer Molly Corso explores the faith of Armenian Catholics in the current edition of ONE magazine, and offers some additional reflections here.

One of the first things that struck me as I started to work on this story was that Armenian Catholics are a minority, within a minority. Ethnically, they are a minority — albeit Georgia’s largest minority — in the country. And, religiously, they are a minority within their ethnicity, as well as within the predominately Orthodox Christian country.

Despite being prejudged, first as Armenians and then as non-Orthodox, many of those living in Georgian urban communities outside of the tightly knit Armenian villages of Samtskhe Javakheti have only a tenuous tie to their Armenian roots. They speak Russian and Georgian, most of the youth go to Georgian schools, and by far not all have traveled to Armenia.

They are, in a word, similar to Italian-Americans or Irish-Americans in the United States: culturally, symbolically somehow tied to the old country by their last names, a different faith, or a penchant for a certain type offood. But otherwise fairly integrated in the country they call home.

But while being an Italian-American or an Irish-American is now something to be proud of in the states, in Georgia — after two difficult decades of conflict, poverty, and ethnic strife — it can be very difficult to show one’s pride for non-Georgian roots.

Georgia and Armenia share an ancient history and Tbilisi, the country’s capital, has boasted more Armenian citizens than even Yerevan. But the 1990s were overshadowed by battles over territory as Georgia lost control of large chunks of the small country; attempts, however feeble, by Armenian nationals to cut off Samtskhe Javakheti, a southern region of the country that borders Armenia and has the largest concentration of Georgian-Armenians, were not encouraged.

To this day, some of the more national-leaning television stations are still prone to refer to ethnic Armenians living in the country in that context when there is any conflict in the region: would-be separatists looking for a way to break away.

Even among their own kind, Armenian Catholics are viewed as ‘others,’ as Armenians who have strayed from their apostolic flock. The pitched fight over church property seized by the Communists after Georgia became part of the Soviet Union in 1921 is largely played out between the Georgian Orthodox Church and the Armenian Apostolic Church, with little effort to include smaller faiths.

During the Armenian Catholic Center’s Saturday school in Tbilisi, however, Georgian-Armenians are given the opportunity to explore their cultural heritage without concern that they will be deemed less Georgian-or less Armenian- for doing so. In a delectable mix of Armenian, Georgian and Russian, children struggle over Armenian vocabulary, learn Armenian Catholic hymns, and dance Armenian folkdances.

I was struck by how seamlessly the children were able to go from one language to another, discussing art projects, language assignments, and dance moves in all of those languages without a break for translation — proof that, especially among the minority of a minority, there is a synergy between the traditions of their ancestors and their identity as modern Georgians.

Read more about the Armenian Catholics in A Firm Faith in the spring 2014 edition of ONE.

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