Threats of nuclear war are not taken lightly here in the Caucasus. 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, particularly in Armenia, whose peoples have experienced in the modern era waves of hatred and persecution.
The sense of calm pervading the plaza surrounding Tbilisi’s Sioni Cathedral of the Dormition belies the general tensions felt in this capital city of Georgia, now crowded with military-aged Russian men and their families, fleeing the partial mobilization called by Russian President Vladimir Putin. A 12th-century structure built upon the ruins of a sixth-century church, Sioni lies in the heart of an increasingly hip city, renewed with foreign investment and tourist dollars. Families mill about, ducking into the church 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, employing expletives, mark buildings, fences and posts, clearly crying out Georgian support for Ukraine. The distinctive Georgian flag bearing red crosses on a white ground are often paired with the Ukrainian banner of sky blue and gold; for the tens of thousands of Russians fleeing conscription, 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, 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 may play an important role — even serve as an antidote — to counter this growing Pac-Man-like quest to gobble up the weak and the vulnerable. Armenia and Georgia’s Catholic churches, for example, are small, resource-poor communities that 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. Despite the trends of globalization and dehumanization, their commitment to nurturing, preserving and promoting the many distinctive cultures that form these countries by healing their broken, curing their sick, feeding their hungry and advocating their God-given rights remain firm.
Their partnerships with members of the Armenian Apostolic and Georgian Orthodox churches, civil authorities, local lay leaders and the international community — particularly through the churches’ dynamic social service agencies, Caritas Armenia and Caritas Georgia — enable them to answer the Gospel’s powerful call, “And who is my neighbor?”
During our last days in the region, our CNEWA team met with a group of Ukrainian refugees living in Tbilisi in a safe house administered by Caritas. 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, director, explains, 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 says, as the refugees show 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,” says Ms. Mkhoyan of the occasional domestic crises that invariably crop up from day to day. “For a people living under such stress, the courses of their lives interrupted and their plans destroyed, one has to expect this.”
For Caritas Georgia’s Liana Mkheidze, who has been with Caritas for more than two decades and coordinates its emergency responses, 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 says in her understated way, shrugging her shoulders and hands.
“Little things matter.”
As I have written before, “I could not have said it better.”
Michael J.L. La Civita is CNEWA’s director of communications.