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Georgia on My Mind

Excerpts from a report prepared by Msgr. Robert Stern on his April 1994 visit to the Republic of Georgia.

Vatican Delegation
In response to an invitation extended by Mr. Eduard Shevardnadze, Georgia’s head of state, Cardinal Achille Silvestrini, Prefect of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches, led a small Vatican delegation to Georgia.

Other members included Msgr. Claudio Gugerotti, Official of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches; Father Angelo Brusco, O.S.Cam., Superior General of the Order of St. Camillus; Mr. Francesco Carloni of Caritas Italiana; and me.

The overall purposes of the trip were to call upon civil and ecclesiastical authorities and to make pastoral visits to representative small Catholic communities. A special purpose was to explore the feasibility of building a multipurpose health clinic in Tbilisi to be staffed by the Camillian Fathers and placed at the service of the people of Georgia in the name of the pope.

General Description
Georgia and its neighboring republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan, separated from Russia by the Caucasus Mountains, historically have been a frontier between Europe and Asia. A part of the Russian and Soviet empires since the 18th century, Georgia declared its independence again in 1990.

Covering an area of 26,900 square miles, Georgia has a population of 5,400,000 according to its 1989 census. Its capital, Tbilisi, has 1,300,000 inhabitants.

Descendants of ancient tribes, ethnic Georgians are unrelated to the Russians and other Slavs and make up 70 percent of the population. Over 80 other nationalities live in Georgia, including Abkhazians, Armenians, Ossetians and Russians.

Known to the ancient Greeks as Colchis, the mythical land to which Jason voyaged to find the Golden Fleece, Georgia was conquered by Pompey in 66 B.C. and brought into the Roman sphere. It remained firmly allied with Rome for almost three centuries.

Georgia’s independence from Rome dates from the Roman recognition of Mirian III as the King of Kartli-Iberia (eastern Georgia) in 298 A.D. He became a Christian and made Christianity the official religion of his kingdom in 337. By the 6th century, Christianity was the state religion in Colchis (western Georgia) as well.

In 645, the Arabs captured Tbilisi and installed an emir there to rule in the name of the caliph. Arab rule weakened with the expansion of the Byzantine empire. By 1027 the Georgian kingdoms were a united and independent power in the Caucasus.

The Seljuk Turks from Central Asia defeated the Byzantines and controlled the area for 50 years. They were finally defeated in 1122 by the Georgian king, David the Builder. This victory ushered in Georgia’s Golden Age.

In the 13th century the Mongols invaded Georgia more than once and dominated it for over 100 years. After briefly repulsing Mongol rule, the Georgian kingdom was again invaded and conquered in 1386.

After repeated invasions and conquests by Mongols, Ottoman Turks and Persians, the Georgian king sought Russian protection in 1783. Georgia was annexed by Russia in 1800.

In 1918, Georgia declared itself an independent republic, but in 1921 the Red Army invaded and it was once again annexed by Russia.

Political Conflict
After a declaration of Georgian sovereignty on 9 March 1990, elections were held in October. Mr. Zviad Gamsakhurdia, a historian, became the chairman of parliament. However he was accused of establishing a dictatorship and overthrown by a military coup in January 1992. Mr. Eduard Shevardnadze returned to Georgia from Moscow a few months later and was elected chairman of parliament and head of state on 11 October 1992.

In September 1993 bitter fighting broke out between supporters of Gamsakhurdia and the new government that continued until last November.

Ethnic Conflict: South Ossetia
South Ossetia is a small mountainous region near the Russian border, north of Tbilisi. Two-thirds of its 100,000 people are ethnic Ossetians, traditionally allied with Russia. Civil conflict started there in 1989. In 1990 the South Ossetians, then living in an autonomous region within Georgia, declared their land to be a sovereign republic. In December 1991 they proclaimed their independence.

After intense fighting, a cease-fire was signed in June 1992 and is still in force, although there is still no final resolution to the conflict.

Ethnic Conflict: Abkhazia
Abkhazia, a region on the Black Sea in northwestern Georgia, was originally populated by a distinct ethnic group, the Abkhaz, most of whom embraced Islam in the 16th century.

After the Bolsheviks took over Georgia in 1921, Abkhazia became a sovereign socialist republic. In 1930, it was reduced to an autonomous republic within Georgia, and Georgian immigration was encouraged.

The Abkhaz people and leadership felt their land was becoming Georgian and losing its identity. By August 1992, when Abkhazian separatists declared an independent republic, precipitating civil war, the Abkhaz numbered only 18 percent of the population; 46 percent were Georgian.

Presently there is an uneasy truce. Russia has asked the UN to approve its troops as peacekeepers in the area. As a result of the fighting, an estimated 150,000 Georgians and other non-Abkhazian peoples, approximately 30 percent of the total population of Abkhazia, fled for their lives. Almost 50,000 live as refugees in Tbilisi.

Social and Economic Conditions
Approximately 250,000 people, 4.6 percent of the total population of Georgia, are displaced due to the civil conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Most live in great poverty, having lost their lands and possessions when they fled for their lives.

With the demise of the Soviet Union, the economy of Georgia, as that of other republics of the former U.S.S.R., has collapsed. Previously a privileged Soviet republic, Georgia is now almost destitute.

Living conditions have deteriorated drastically. Uncontrolled inflation has made the scrip used as currency almost worthless.

The average monthly wage is about 75 cents. Meanwhile, the cost of food for a small family costs approximately $25 a month. Many people are reduced to selling or bartering their possessions for food.

Before the collapse of the centralized Soviet economy, Georgia had processing plants for mineral water and tea leaves, breweries and silk and textile factories. Now most of the Georgian factories and plants are not in operation.

Reportedly, corruption is rampant and organized crime controls a blackmarket and much of the popular economy.

The Church of Georgia
The great missionary of Georgia is St. Nino of Cappadocia. Originally the church in eastern Georgia used the liturgy of St. James and was dependent on the Antiochene patriarchate, until it became independent in 467.

The church in western Georgia used the Byzantine liturgy. With the unification of the two kingdoms and the establishment of one catholicosate in 1008, the Byzantine liturgy was followed by all.

After Georgia was annexed by Russia, the Georgian catholicosate was abolished. From 1811 until 1917, when the Georgian church again declared itself autocephalous, it was administered by a special exarch of the Russian Orthodox Church.

During the Soviet period, both the Russian and the Georgian Orthodox churches suffered. Of the 2,455 churches open in Georgia until 1917, only 80 were open until just a few years ago.

Traditionally almost all Georgians are Orthodox, although, after 80 years of communism, the actual level of religious formation and practice is very low. In 1988 a new Theological Academy, or seminary, was allowed to be opened in Tbilisi. Under the leadership of the present Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia, Ilia II, a renewal of the church has begun.

Catholics in Georgia
From the Middle Ages, Latin (Roman) Catholic missionaries proselytized Orthodox Christians in Georgia periodically. In 1329 a Latin bishopric was established in Tbilisi, which later lapsed. By the time Georgia was incorporated into the Russian empire, it had about 50,000 Latin Catholics in addition to scattered communities of Armenian Catholics.

During most of the Soviet period, the remnants of these Catholic communities were totally isolated and had no clergy to minister to them. Presently, there are two Latin Catholic priests caring for the one Catholic church open in Tbilisi, two Latin Catholic priests providing pastoral care to a few Latin Catholic villages and two Armenian Catholic priests caring for the few Armenian Catholic villages in Georgia.

Three years ago the Holy See named an ordinary for Armenian Catholics in Eastern Europe, who resides in Armenia.

Last year the Holy See appointed an apostolic nuncio to Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia who resides in Tbilisi and also serves as apostolic administrator for Latin Catholics in the Caucasus.

Parish Encounters
In the course of our visit, Cardinal Silvestrini celebrated two public Masses in Tbilisi, one in SS. Peter and Paul Church and the other in the convent chapel of the Missionaries of Charity. Enthusiastic crowds jammed both.

When the delegation visited the Armenian Catholic village of Shvilisi, it was greeted in the traditional way with two young people in traditional dress bearing bread and salt. Dozens of children lined the entrance to the village with flowers. An outdoor assembly of hundreds of persons organized by the two Armenian Catholic sisters working in the village awaited the group in the village center.

Afterward, Archbishop Nerses der Nersessian celebrated an Armenian liturgy in the church at which the cardinal presided. The local Georgian Orthodox bishop attended the liturgy and a festive meal that followed.

In the small Latin Catholic village of Arali, Cardinal Silvestrini celebrated a Mass on an improvised altar outside the village church. There were too many people to fit inside. Rapt, weathered faces of old folk who had endured long years without sacraments were fixed on the cardinal. The occasional showers did not dampen their enthusiasm, their heartfelt prayers or their glad songs.

Msgr. Robert L. Stern, Secretary General of CNEWA

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