Letter From the Caucasus: Why the Fate of Catholics in Armenia and Georgia Matters

Below is the keynote address given to the members of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, U.S. Eastern Lieutenancy, by CNEWA’s Michael La Civita, at their annual gala in New York City on 16 October. The address was published in the Catholic Herald (U.K.).

Last week I returned from the Caucasus, Armenia and Georgia specifically, after a two-week needs assessment visit for Catholic Near East Welfare Association, or CNEWA, which is an initiative of the Holy See working among the ancient churches of the East.

The first and second nations to have adopted the Christian faith officially — Armenia in the year 301 and neighboring Georgia some 18 years later — their peoples have long figured in the life of our agency. CNEWA’s roots lie in these lands soaked by the blood of martyrs as our first humanitarian efforts involved the rescue of survivors of the genocide of Armenians, Assyro-Chaldeans and other Christians in the Ottoman Turkish Empire after World War I.

Located at the crossroads of Asia and Europe, where the Global North meets the Global South, where East encounters West, the Caucasus is for the competing great powers that surround it — Russia, Iran and Turkey — Ground Zero. And increasingly, little Armenia and Georgia are becoming strategic priorities for the much larger powers in the West, especially NATO and the United States.

Threats of nuclear war are not taken lightly here. Nor are drones, missiles, fiery speeches and historical alliances renewed along cultural and ethnic lines. For the peoples of the small republics of Armenia and Georgia — their ethos largely forged by their shared Christian faith — these concerns are existential, and heightened particularly in Armenia, but no less shared in Georgia.

Just a few days ago, the sense of calm pervading the plaza surrounding the Sioni Cathedral of the Dormition in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi belied the general tensions felt in the city, now crowded with military-aged Russian men and their families, all fleeing the partial mobilization called by Russian President Vladimir Putin. A 12th-century structure built upon the ruins of a sixth-century church, the cathedral lies in the heart of an increasingly hip city, renewed with foreign investment and tourist dollars. Families mill about, ducking into the dark sanctuary to light a candle, kiss an icon and perhaps hear a portion of the services that seem to be celebrated around the clock.

Throughout the city, English-language graffiti, most employing expletives, mark buildings, fences and posts, clearly crying out Georgian support for Ukraine. The distinctive Georgian flag, which bears four red crosses on a white ground, are often paired with the Ukrainian banner of sky blue and yellow. For the tens of thousands of Russians fleeing the draft, the sight challenges a narrative fed to them since the Russian military invaded their “little brothers” in Ukraine on 24 February.

In Armenia, feelings are divided. A Russian military peacekeeping force occupies much of the country, largely to protect Armenia from an increasingly hostile Turkey and its gas-rich ally, Azerbaijan. Armenia’s dependency on a fickle patron, Russia, now distracted by a losing war of its own making, has Armenians on edge, toning down any support they may have for a nation that like themselves is under attack by a more powerful neighbor. As my Armenian friends say, “It’s complicated.”

Indeed, and overwhelming.

In a world seemingly gone mad, what will happen to smaller countries, vulnerable communities, distinct cultures and societies that do not conform to the demands of richer, more powerful empires seeking yet more control, more influence, more power and more resources? What will happen to those who oppose the dehumanization of the human person for ideological, commercial or partisan political gain?

Faith communities can play an important role — even serve as an antidote — to counter this growing Pac-Man-like quest to gobble up the little, the weak and the vulnerable. Armenia and Georgia’s Catholic churches, for example, are small, resource-poor communities who nevertheless play a disproportionate role in each country, where the Armenian Apostolic and Georgian Orthodox churches function as state religions. This is largely due to Catholic social teaching which, rooted in the Gospel of Jesus, seeks to build and nourish the people of God and work for the common good of all, Catholics, Christians and all people of good will.

Over the years — throughout my travels in Armenia and Georgia as a part of CNEWA’s needs assessment team — the role of these small Catholic churches has become clearer. In Ukraine, in a CNEWA visit in early May led by its chair Timothy Cardinal Dolan of New York, the massive volume of emergency assistance given by the worldwide Catholic community for a people in flight through Ukraine’s Greek and Latin Catholic churches astounded, and testifies to the generous spirit of Catholics worldwide, rich, poor, white, brown, traditional and progressive.

In the broader Holy Land, the role of the Catholic Church — including charitable groups such as the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem — is creative and crucial, despite decades of conflict and protracted war. In Palestine, for example, more than 40 percent of the territories’ social service programs for children and their families, the elderly and, in general the most vulnerable and marginalized in society, are administered by a Catholic community whose population account for less than 1 percent of the population.

Let there be no mistaking: the generous nature of Catholics — rooted in the Gospel of Jesus — is a powerful antidote to the excesses of globalization and its byproduct, dehumanization. And the church’s commitment to nurturing, preserving and promoting the many distinctive cultures that form these nations by healing their broken, curing their sick, feeding their hungry and advocating their God-given rights remains firm. Even if our scale is limited, changing one life is better than changing none.

Little things matter.

Their partnerships with members of other churches and faith communities, civil authorities when appropriate, local lay leaders and the international community — particularly through the churches’ dynamic social service agencies, such as the international Caritas network, CNEWA and the Order of the Holy Sepulchre — enable them to answer the Gospel’s powerful call, “And who is my neighbor?”

During our last days in the Caucasus, our CNEWA team met with a group of Ukrainian refugees living in Tbilisi in a safe house administered by Caritas, the charity of the local Catholic churches. The families were from the regions now illegally annexed by Russia, but most survived the horrors of Mariupol, fleeing through Russia by bus for points south. Despite their experiences, none would accept counseling offered by Caritas, which as Anahit Mkhoyan, its director, explained, is their right.

“We are not going to force anything on anyone, and maybe they will find other ways to work out the trauma, but right now their focus is on getting to Canada or Europe,” she said, as the refugees showed us their humble rooms, and one, her pet Belgian shepherd, Emily.

A few hundred refugees have come through this safe house since Ukrainians began to arrive in Georgia in the late spring. Right now, 17 people, most of them women, live in the house, sharing a kitchen and a few bathrooms.

“We have our own conflict resolutions to solve,” said Ms. Mkhoyan of the occasional domestic crises that invariably crop up from day to day, including one that very morning.

“For a people living under such stress, the courses of their lives interrupted, and their plans destroyed, one has to expect this.”

For my dear friend Liana Mkheidze, who has coordinated Caritas Georgia’s emergency responses for some 20 years, these resolutions, as well as the provision of assistance such as shelter, food, job training and even counseling, are small victories.

“Little things matter,” she said in her understated Soviet-style way, shrugging her shoulders and hands.

“Little things matter.”

I could not have said it better.

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