At Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church in Tbilisi, parishioners greet one another during the Kiss of Peace. (photo: Molly Corso)
A new generation takes root in the Armenian Catholic congregation at Sts. Peter and Paul. (photo: Molly Corso)
Father Mikhael Khachkalian, the only Armenian Catholic priest in Tbilisi, sings during the weekly youth liturgy in the tiny chapel of the Armenian Catholic Center in Tbilisi. (photo: Molly Corso)
Parishioners sing Armenian hymns during the Divine Liturgy at Sts. Peter and Paul Church, which they share with the local Roman Catholic community. (photo: Molly Corso)
Until a priest arrived in 2002, parishioners found it difficult to preserve and celebrate their faith. (photo: Molly Corso)
After generations of Soviet oppression, Georgia’s Armenian Catholics still labor to rebuild their community and their faith. Soviet Georgia’s bureaucrats suppressed Armenian Catholic parishes, imprisoned priests and boarded churches, but they failed to dampen Armenian Catholic faith and resolve. Ironically, that resolve is in jeopardy in the reasonably open and democratic Republic of Georgia.
Latin (Roman) Catholic priests returned to Georgia in 1992, quickly reanimating parish life in two historic Latin parishes in the capital of Tbilisi. But it was not until 2002 that Tbilisi, home to more than 80,000 Armenians, received its first Armenian Catholic priest. Today, there are just five Armenian Catholic priests to tend to nearly 20,000 believers scattered throughout the country. Most live in a wide swath of villages southwest of Tbilisi in the predominantly Armenian region of Samtskhe-Javakheti, but the Georgian capital was, until a hundred years ago, the region’s largest Armenian-populated city.
The lack of priests on the ground means Armenian Catholics living in cities such as Borjomi, Ozurgeti and Chiatura attend Latin parishes, a phenomenon that impacts all Eastern Catholics where clergy and parishes are nonexistent. This means that a way of life, as well as a faith tradition, is imperiled. More Armenian Catholics are finding themselves disconnected from centuries of tradition without access to the sacraments and rites that have been a part of their faith and, in fact, their identity.
Yet, defying the odds, they stand firm. To spend time with Georgia’s Armenian Catholics is to rediscover the deep reservoirs of piety and purpose — and a remarkable strength of character — that have defined them for generations.
It is also to realize, above all, that the story of Georgia’s Armenian Catholics is one of unwavering faith.
“The Soviet period was a time of oppression for Armenian Catholic families,” says Tbilisi’s Rev. Mikael Khachkalian, the only Armenian Catholic priest in the city, of the challenges facing his flock in Georgia.
“The Soviet Communist regime’s deliberate policy gave birth to another problem — the Armenians of Tbilisi in particular don’t have a good command of the Armenian language, knowledge about their national Christian tradition and their rich, centuries-old history.”
Father Khachkalian estimates that around 80 percent of those worshiping in Tbilisi’s two Catholic parishes are in fact ethnic Armenians. The same problem exists around the country, outside the predominantly Armenian Catholic villages in southwestern Georgia, where the Armenian language and culture dominate. Yet even in these villages, the heart of Armenian Catholicism in the Caucasus, challenges exist. Priests must travel travel hundreds of miles in wretched conditions to provide the sacraments to far-flung congregations in shrinking communities largely empty of its men, most of whom have abandoned their families for work in Russia.
Solakat Davolian, 75, attends liturgy every morning in the small makeshift chapel in the Armenian Catholic center in Tbilisi, yet she prefers to attend Mass every Sunday afternoon at the Latin parish of Sts. Peter and Paul downtown.
Before Armenian Catholic priests arrived in Tbilisi, Armenian Catholics were served by Polish-speaking missionaries. This, Mrs. Davolian says, made participation in the life of the community a challenge. “Now that there is an Armenian priest, I come every day,” she explains. “It was hard before; we could not understand the language. Now, thank God, it is much easier.”
When Father Khachkalian began serving Tbilisi’s Armenian Catholic community, his tiny congregation was weakened by factions and disputes. Today, however, more than 100 children regularly attend liturgies and classes on Saturday and adults take part in weekly religious classes every Friday. Mrs. Davolian notes with pride that the liturgies are nearly always full.
A fellow parishioner, Anaida Kochiani, attributes the attendance to Father Khachkalian’s outreach and enthusiasm to reconnect ethnic Armenians with their faith. She says his work has had a great impact on the community — including her own family.
Mrs. Kochiani had stopped practicing her faith and says she even discouraged her son from attending the Soorp Badarak, the Armenian eucharistic liturgy. But, several years ago, when her husband fell ill, Father Khachkalian visited him regularly in the hospital. His commitment convinced Mrs. Kochiani to reconsider her relationship to the church. When she began attending liturgies, she was so impressed by the priest’s efforts at community outreach that she decided to volunteer to teach children the Armenian language.
Language is key to preserving faith and identity for Armenian Catholics, she explains. “Step by step, the children forget their language, forget their culture, they forget who they are.”
The weekly classes also help adults return to their roots, Mrs. Kochiani adds, noting the group is steadily working its way through the catechism one week at a time. Before, she says, religion was something she thought could wait for when she had time. Now, however, she makes time for it, carving out of her hectic schedule enough room every Saturday afternoon to work with the community’s children.
On a typical sunny Saturday, Mrs. Kochiani coaches four ethnic Armenian teenage girls through a vocabulary lesson, switching to Russian and Georgian to prompt the girls when they forget a word. In a small room tucked in between the chapel and the kitchen, there are frequent interruptions. Students wander in for other classes and the steady bass beat of Armenian music reverberates from the folk dance workshop in the center’s basement.
“Of course we love and respect Georgia very much. We were born here, but we are preserving, as much as possible, Armenian culture,” she says. “We are trying as we can to teach the children, so they can at least feel that they are Armenian.”
She notes that while some Georgian nationalists have “pretenses” against Armenian Christians — especially Armenian Catholics — they are largely accepted in society.
But in the resort town of Borjomi, some 96 miles from the capital, Catholics — a handful of ethnic Armenians and Georgians — encounter challenges from some segments of society who hold fast to the idea that to be a loyal Georgian is to be Georgian Orthodox.
Patima Aitsuradze, who hosts Borjomi’s tiny Catholic community in her home every week, says school teachers have told her children they will “go to hell” for practicing their Catholicism. Neighbors question why a priest and strangers enter her house, where the liturgy is celebrated weekly.
“They think it is a sect of some kind. They don’t understand — they ask ‘why don’t you go to a church?’ ”
There has never been a Catholic church in Borjomi, Mrs. Aitsuradze notes, adding that locals simply do not know enough about the faith.
Her makeshift chapel occupies her home’s balcony, walled in for warmth. Pictures of Christ and candles share a wall with peeling wallpaper and chipped paint. Just a handful of people come every week, she says.
Her children have made peace with belonging to a faith tradition many Orthodox believers in town do not understand, Mrs. Aitsuradze says.
“People are so silly,” she sighs.
But in a bid to fit in, her family has taken to celebrating Orthodox holidays as well as Catholic ones.
“There is nothing bad about it,” she says. “God is one, there is no real difference. The children have a faith, they think it is funny that people don’t understand.”
Discrimination against religious minorities in Georgia, however, is anything but funny, according to Beka Mindiashvili, the head of the Tolerance Center at the Georgian Public Defender Office.
“Religious minorities in general are in a tough position in Georgia,” he says.
“Armenians themselves are also in a difficult position as an ethnic minority. There are negative stereotypes,” Mr. Mindiashvili explains.
“We can say that all religious minorities face a difficult situation; they all have their own problems. Considering the minority of the minority, that is also an interesting issue.”
Armenian Catholics have fewer resources and less influence than the larger, more institutionalized Armenian Apostolic Church, for example. While Armenian Catholic priests, including Father Mikael Khachkalian, have expressed concern with the “Latinization” of ethnic Armenian communities, Mr. Mindiashvili notes there has not been any major conflict between the two.
One of the main problems for any religious minority — including the Armenian Catholic Church — is building a church, he says. While there are no laws in Georgia that prohibit a religious organization from building a church, in reality, the task can be a tricky proposition.
In Tbilisi, a house bought in 2002 has been outfitted to include the only Armenian Catholic chapel in the capital. The dreary exterior — devoid of any crosses or religious iconography — reveals none of the warmth or character of an Armenian sanctuary. But the lack of a real church, Father Khachkalian explains, is a “fundamental problem” for the community. The chapel can only hold 30 people — a fraction of the faithful. In addition, the building is in need of repairs.
While Father Khachkalian is attempting to register Tbilisi’s Armenian Catholic Center as a church, there is no guarantee that he will do so successively.
Mr. Mindiashvili stresses there are no outstanding cases of Armenian Catholics or other religious minorities being denied the right to build a church. But, once built, there have been conflicts. When the Chaldean Catholic community built a church in Tbilisi, Georgian nationalists surrounded it until Mr. Mindiashvili and his staff intervened.
And yet, the faith endures.
For Solakat Davolian, the current challenges pale in comparison to the problems she faced in the past. Today, all five of her grandchildren have been baptized Armenian Cotholic — a ritual the faithful had to hide for generations during the Soviet Union.
Despite the hardships she has encountered, Mrs. Davolian says giving up the faith of her parents and grandparents for the sake of convenience was never an option: “I never considered going to another faith.”
The writing of Tbilisi-based photojournalist Molly Corso has appeared in EurasiaNet.org.