The Rev. Mikael Khachkalian, the only Armenian Catholic priest in Tbilisi, works both to preach the faith and to preserve the culture. (photo: Molly Corso)
Father Mikael Khachkalian teaches the Armenian language to children at the Armenian Catholic center in Tbilisi. (photo: Molly Corso)
Father Khachkalian chats with a member of his congregation at the Armenian Catholic Center. (photo: Molly Corso)
Lacking their own church in Tbilisi, Armenian Catholics often celebrate the liturgy at Sts. Peter and Paul Latin Catholic Church. (photo: Molly Corso)
Clinging to the cliffs of the Caucasus Mountains, the ancient city of Tbilisi serves as the cultural and political capital of Georgia, a transcontinental country that lies between Asia and Europe. Historically a buffer state between the Christian and Muslim worlds, Georgia is rich in diversity — culturally, ethnically and linguistically. Armenians, whose own ancient state borders Georgia to the south, have lived there for centuries, helping to fashion Tbilisi into a major cultural and intellectual hub since the 18th century.
The Rev. Mikael Khachkalian is one of five Catholic Armenian priests in Georgia, which has perhaps as many as 20,000 Armenian Catholics scattered in the capital and in the rural south. Father Khachkalian ministers to his people by both preaching the faith and preserving a culture. From celebrating the liturgy every morning in Armenian to Saturday language lessons with the youth, he is a full-time advocate for Armenian identity in Georgia.
After daily liturgies in the Armenian Catholic Center near downtown Tbilisi, the faithful explore the language of the liturgy as much as its meaning, sounding out unfamiliar Armenian words and practicing the proper pronunciation with the young priest and an assistant.
For Father Khachkalian, learning the language is paramount to understanding the faith, preserving the community’s Armenian Catholic identity and encouraging its growth for the future. But these evangelical efforts are facing stiff headwinds in a country experiencing a revival in Georgian nationalism and Georgian Orthodox Christianity.
Catholic Armenians have had a turbulent existence in Georgia: Most originally arrived after fleeing Ottoman Turkey to escape the massacres that killed some 1.5 million Armenians and Assyro-Chaldean Christians during the World War I era. Significant numbers of Catholic Armenians resettled in villages in Samtskhe-Javakheti, a rugged southern region of Georgia that borders Armenia and Turkey where earlier waves of Armenian exiles found refuge.
Eventually, many migrated to Tbilisi, long an important Armenian center, lured by the many opportunities offered there rather than the hard scrubland farming life in the villages.
During the Soviet period, especially Stalin’s Great Purge in the late 1930’s, the Communist authorities executed Georgia’s Armenian Catholic priests, leaving the faithful without the sacraments for more than 60 years. A full-time priest did not return to Tbilisi until 2002.
Every day, Father Khachkalian — the second Armenian Catholic priest assigned to the capital — sees the impact of the purge on his community. In the absence of a priest from their own tradition, Armenian Catholics have often sought out Catholic priests from the Latin Church, which did not experience the same level of persecution by the Communist authorities. Many Catholic Armenians in Tbilisi have since been Latinized, a “sad blow,” he says, to the Catholic Armenian community. Although the faith is the same, and the rites and liturgy maintain similarities, the culture and traditions underscore major differences and threaten to sever ties to the Armenian Catholic Church, which the priest believes is tantamount to losing ties with one’s ancestors.
Today, however, Father Khachkalian is working hard to return Armenian Catholics to their ancestral faith.
Born in Tbilisi, Father Khachkalian is no stranger to the challenges that burden Georgia’s minorities. About 8 percent of the Georgian population is ethnically Armenian — the largest minority group in Georgia — but Catholic Armenians are a minority within a minority. In the last census, taken in 2002, nearly the entire Armenian population in Georgia identified with the Armenian Apostolic Church, the preeminent church of the worldwide Armenian community.
While there are no hard numbers, Father Khachkalian believes that 90 percent of self-identified Latin Catholics in Tbilisi are Catholic Armenians. Despite their numbers, however, there is no official Armenian Catholic church in Tbilisi — or anywhere in Georgia outside of the small village parishes in Samtskhe-Javakheti.
In a recent report, the priest outlined the need for a separate Armenian Catholic church in Tbilisi.
“The Armenian Catholic community in Tbilisi is going through difficult times,” he writes. “It’s divided and weakened.” He highlights that the parish center needs “major repairs” and is not big enough for the entire community to meet at one time and celebrate their faith.
“It is also a problem for us to build a church. We have not seriously tried yet, but I think we will have problems,” he adds. While Georgian law nominally does not prohibit Armenian Catholics — or any other faith — from building a church, in reality, it is very controversial.
“Discrimination — if you start to do something, then you feel it.”
While Georgians pride themselves for their tolerance of religious and ethnic minorities, discrimination, Father Khachkalian says, remains a part of daily life — firstly due to ethnicity, then, as a distant second, due to faith.
“We have more problems due to the fact that we are Armenian, not that we are Catholic,” Father Khachkalian says.
“You hear some insulting comments on the street,” he adds, noting if the Georgian media mentions Armenians, it is often in a negative light, or in relation to the Armenian separatist movement in the south of the country.
Without a proper church to anchor his congregation, Father Khachkalian has carefully nurtured a revival of Armenian Catholicism and the Armenian language in parish house in Avlabari, a traditionally Armenian neighborhood in the historic district of Old Tbilisi, on the bank of the Kura River.
From morning until night, Father Khachkalian witnesses to the faith and culture that make Armenian Catholics a unique part of the universal Catholic faith. During the week, that means morning liturgy in Armenian, followed by a meeting with the parishioners to discuss questions of language and ritual. On Friday evenings there is a special catechism for adults — a chance for those of older generations, who lived under Soviet state-sponsored atheism, to reconnect with their ancient roots.
On the weekends, Father Khachkalian celebrates the eucharistic liturgy, known as the Badarak in Armenian. The star of his mission, however, is the Saturday school for the youth — an inspired undertaking that seeks to energize young Armenian Georgians to learn and embrace their culture and faith. Armenian language lessons, catechism, choir, music and art — even a nascent English language study program — are available for the 100 or so Armenian youth who flock to the center.
In the Armenian Catholic Center, it is a typical Saturday scene: Following a robust service in Armenian, Father Khachkalian helps a group of teenagers wrestle Armenian verbs into submission in the kitchen, using a whiteboard propped up between the stove and the table. Meanwhile, his assistant leads art classes and Armenian dance practice in the center’s basement.
Though CNEWA provides programmatic funding for the program, resources are limited — the center is largely a labor of love for the priest and his flock.
With assistance from CNEWA’s partner, Caritas Georgia, the center was able to install a heating system so the children could also attend classes in the winter, and purchase musical instruments and other supplies for the arts program.
The tiny center — which houses a one-room chapel as well as Father Khachkalian’s office — is ill-equipped to serve all the community’s needs.
Nevertheless, the young generation is active and engaged. As they study the Catholic faith and the Armenian language, Father Khachkalian has his eyes on higher peaks, still — including technical training in marketable skills to provide the young students, many of whom hail from poor families, a chance at a brighter future.