ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

A Letter From Georgia

Editors’ note: The author of this article pastors the Assyro-Chaldean community in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, which is geographically in Europe, yet lies only 382 miles from Mosul in northern Iraq. In addition to caring for the souls of his parish, Chorbishop Benyamin Beth Yadgar serves as president of Caritas Georgia, the charity of the Armenian, Chaldean and Roman Catholic churches and a major partner of CNEWA.

The Assyro-Chaldean Christians of historical Mesopotamia — modern Iran, Iraq and Turkey — have been used as pawns in political games by powerful states for centuries. But nothing prepared us for the tragedy of World War I, which decimated our people and our churches: the Church of the East, the Syriac Catholic and Orthodox churches, and my own Chaldean Catholic Church.

We were dispersed, as many of our people fled to other corners of the world. The numbers tell the story. According to the Soviet census of 1939, there were some 20,000 Assyro-Chaldeans, most of them postwar refugees, living in what is now the Republic of Georgia. In 1990, that figure fell to 7,000. According to the census of 2001, only 3,000 people identified themselves as Assyrian or Chaldean.

It was into this difficult situation that I arrived in 1995, tasked with beginning an Assyro-Chaldean Catholic mission in the Georgian capital city of Tbilisi. I was entering a world of tremendous challenges.

The view from my window of the airport below as I first approached Tbilisi startled me. It was totally dark. The landing strip was barely illuminated. It looked like a yawning abyss, gloomy and bleak. The picture didn’t get any brighter as I made my way through the city.

Dilapidated houses in the central square still preserved traces of a brutal civil war, with bullet holes that pockmarked the walls. The roads had collapsed. Armed guards stood at nearly all the crossroads. The city was living up to its reputation as a place of hardship, fear and misery. It seemed as if time had frozen.

I stayed at the home of a parishioner, Genadi Ivanov, who made me feel most welcome. The following day, I met and spoke with Assyrians. My first impressions of the city — of the despair and the sense of defeat — only became worse. People were absolutely exhausted by endless daily, social and political problems. Everyday living was a struggle. Water and heat were scarce; the electricity was always failing. We tried to take some comfort from the Gospel of St. Luke: “One does not live by bread alone.” The mission of talking with people about spiritual food, while they strived hard to find daily bread, was not easy.

But in the midst of so much strife, I found inspiration from those who came before us — namely our dear grandmothers and grandfathers who attended church in any weather, under any circumstances, with great love and enthusiasm. Their devotion was so great!

The generation who followed them, a generation of agnostics and atheists, could not grasp how much their elders suffered for faith and truth. These people in the most difficult years of Soviet regime risked everything. When it was fearsome to speak about God even in a whisper, and when churches were bulldozed or dynamited and priests were executed, they continued to visit the churches that survived, giving moral and financial support to priests to preserve the word of God and to keep hope alive.

Today, many of them are no longer with us. But they live on in memory. For me, they remain steadfast examples of courage and devotion. It is a courage and devotion deeply rooted in our history. Above all, they are survivors.

Most of the Assyrians and Chaldeans living in Georgia are descendants of refugees from Iran. They came to Georgia at the beginning of the last century, as life had become very difficult for them. People died of hunger, exposure, and unbearably difficult conditions. In spite of the obstacles, however, thousands of refugees managed to reach Transcaucasia. I know how important faith was for them. My long suffering people proved it with their lives and sacrifices.

In the life of every Assyrian and Chaldean, wherever they find themselves, no matter what fate has thrown at them, there has always been something unshakable. These strong people resisted pressure, oppression, violence, cruelty and injustice. And what made them survive, what enabled them to endure, was something far stronger than a sense of national self-preservation. It was — and it remains — their Christian faith.

They have prevailed because of the Gospel.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Assyrians and Chaldeans in the revived and independent Georgia were grateful to live in a country with deep Christian traditions, and they gradually regained hope for a peaceful existence. But these hopes were sobered by the realities and results of life after 70 years of Soviet rule, during which society was in a severe informational vacuum. At that time taboos and prohibitions were an integral part of life. These extended to all spheres of social and state activity, including the practice of religion.

Information about religion was scarce and, in most cases, unreliable. While the Communist Party no longer openly persecuted the church, it mocked clergy and actively discouraged religion and the practice of faith. Decades of this numbing activity made clear the priority of our mission: to reaffirm, reassure and support those holding on to their Christian faith. We learned that it was vital to hold frequent meetings, conversations on religious topics and to help explain Christian doctrine, so that the faith did not remain something distant or merely a part of history. And so we began working to make Christianity an integral party of daily life — a code of conduct, a way of living rooted in love.

The primary objective for our mission has always been, and will continue to be, to live and witness the teachings of our Lord, Jesus Christ, through Scripture; we draw together communities for the celebration of sacraments and feast days; we foster love and charity among the people; we teach the faith, ethics and morals of the church; and we support the practice and preservation of our cultural heritage.

Through all this and more, we prayerfully work to keep the Gospel alive and deepen the faith of the people. We seek to spread the hope of Christianity, and bring light to those who spent so many decades in darkness, with humanitarian and education projects, along with spiritual activities. To this day, the work goes on at what is now the Assyro-Chaldean Parish of Mar Shemmon Bar Sabbae, which was consecrated in Tbilisi in October 2009 by the late Cardinal Emmanuel III, patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans.

What a blessing this has been! Our parish complex is now our religious and cultural center. It is a multifunctional building, with a beautiful church, classrooms, a conference center, a theater, banquet halls and different workshops for young people. It is a place where Assyrians and Chaldeans of all ages and confessions from different districts of Tbilisi and nearby villages gather to meet each other for prayer or socializing. They celebrate religious and state holidays, organize meetings and different events, and joyfully take part in religious traditions and their historic culture.

By offering different programs and activities, we endeavor to animate and enrich the community. Our parish goal is to create a safe, friendly and welcoming atmosphere for the young, introducing children to their historic Assyro-Chaldean culture; share the beautiful and timeless teachings of Christianity; and promote a healthy and useful way of living — offering an alternative to street life, drugs and gangs. We try to give them tools to build a better, happier future.

I cannot help but feel all these efforts are working toward one beautiful goal, the goal of our savior, Jesus Christ: to destroy indifference and build a temple of love and charity in our hearts. The doors to this church will always be open for those in need, regardless of their ethnic and religious background, regardless of differences and disagreements.

It is important to help people realize that, only by our good deeds, can we be the living example of the eternal principles of Christianity — the infinite love and care for our neighbors and those in need.

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