15 November 2013
Situated about 100 miles outside of Tbilisi, Eshtia is one of 21 Armenian Catholic communities in Georgia that constitute a swath of Catholicism cutting through the predominantly Orthodox nation. (photo: Michael La Civita)
On Wednesday morning, Thomas Varghese, Caritas’s program manager Liana Mkheidze and I began our two-day journey though the southwestern Georgian region of Samtskhe-Javakheti, which is predominantly populated by Armenians.
It is a desperately poor region with high unemployment, high rates of emigration, broken families, high rates of diabetes and cardiovascular disease, and little or no infrastructure — such as sewage treatment, irrigation and potable water, roads and the like.
“Armenians have suffered disproportionately, as they lack the lifeline of strong personal networks that mark Georgian society,” wrote CNEWA’s contributor in the Caucasus, Molly Corso, in the autumn edition of ONE. “Bad roads, fuel shortages, heavy snowfalls and a language barrier challenged relations with the Tbilisi-based government, isolating Armenian communities in the southern region.”
The roads would be a challenge for anyone, but Kakha, Caritas’s longtime driver, navigated the steep climbs, the mountain roads and paths, the mortar-like marked roads and the gelatinous mud with ease — that is, when he was not arguing with Liana about the speed.
We visited three Armenian Catholic villages: Eshtia, Ujmana and Bavra. Thomas described the scene as positively medieval. “Time has stood still here,” he said in disbelief. My colleague has seen poverty stretching from India through Eritrea and Ethiopia, but the isolation, the bleakness of the landscape and the wretched poverty made an impression, he said, that will be hard to forget.
Caritas sends mobile clinics to the region, said Gaioz Kubaneishvili, who manages socio-health care projects for the agency, which he says are well attended by the villagers. He also noted that they have brought a fresh water supply to several villages, and are looking to set up a youth program, too. But a Catholic aid agency — regardless of how extensive its resources — cannot make up for what the municipalities should be doing. The problems here are profound.
Families live hand to mouth. They tend small plots, planting crops that can survive the severe temperatures and short growing season. What little excess they may have any given year, perhaps some potatoes, cabbage or barley, they sell for what they cannot produce, such as sugar, rice or oil.
Julia Sirinyan of Bavra, who I dubbed the mukhtar (an elder in Arabic) of her village, noted, too, that many of the families in the region were deserted, broken by the departure of husbands and fathers who left for Russia, never to return.
“Russian women steal our husbands,” she said, “including mine.
“We have no husbands, no jobs … but,” she said, shaking the thoughts from her mind, “look at my beautiful village. It is beautiful, is it not?”
Looking out at the bleak landscape, I found it hard at first to agree. Sure, the setting was beautiful, but the mud, the monochromatic landscape, the open sewage canals and the stench of the place made me queasy.
But as we spent more time in the region — meeting the women who tend the churches in absence of a priest; taking tea and fresh bread with a family whose son was confined to wheelchair after an automobile accident, his dream of serving as a priest destroyed; listening to the passion of this driven woman who clearly is a lifeline to her neighbors — indeed, I saw the beauty of her village and her people.
“Please help me save my village,” she pleaded. “We survive only thanks to God’s help.”
I later asked Bishop Giuseppe Pasotto, apostolic administrator for Catholics in Georgia, how he sustained his priests from feeling overwhelmed in the face of such poverty.
“I honestly do not know,” he said frankly, “but we rely on visits such as yours to help us remember that we are not alone here, that we are a part of something much larger.”
That generous response, thanking CNEWA for visiting Georgia and taking the time to listen and learn, exemplifies the exquisite generosity of this land and its people.
(photo: Michael La Civita)
We ended our visit to the west of the country by visiting Gelati Monastery, located high above the city of Kutaisi. Built in the early 12th century by King David the Builder, it once housed an academy that rivaled Constantinople’s, then the center of Christendom.
(photo: Michael La Civita)
Some of the mosaics and frescoes seen here date to its foundation and are masterpieces of Byzantine art.
The spectacular architecture, refined carvings and delicate frescoes reminded me of a few things: One, of the richness of this ancient culture in Middle Earth, and two, of a Russian proverb familiar even here: “Things survive what people do not.”
(photo: Michael La Civita)
15 November 2013
Tags: Cultural Identity Village life Georgia Architecture Caucasus
Children practice in a dance class sponsored by Caritas Georgia. (video: Michael La Civita)
The last few days — Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and today — have been grueling, emotionally and physically. CNEWA’s Thomas Varghese and I spent Tuesday in Tbilisi and then began a two-day excursion to Georgia’s southwest and western regions. We climbed elevations of more than 12,000 feet, reached plateau lakes and descended only to repeat the same slog. We have traveled hundreds of miles, some paved, many not, flirting along the Armenian or Turkish borders for most of the way.
We have learned that, while our journey to Middle Earth on the surface may seem as if we have stepped back in time, we are in the modern world with all of its challenges, but in concentrated form.
We began Tuesday meeting with the head of the Assyro-Chaldean community in Georgia, Chorbishop Benjamin Beth Yadegar. Assyro-Chaldean Catholics, he explained, have been present in Georgia since the “Year of the Cross,” 1915, when the Ottoman Turks and their Kurdish allies began their deportation and murder of the Ottoman Empire’s many Christians: Armenian, Assyro-Chaldean, Greek and Syriac. Some survivors found refuge in Georgia, only to be exiled to Siberia 20 years later by Stalin.
Thousands of Assyro-Chaldeans have returned from their Siberian exile, the gregarious priest told us over steaming-hot tea, but their socioeconomic situation is horrible. Living in crowded and filthy villages around Tbilisi, many have vitamin deficiencies, poor health and almost no education.
When he arrived as a newly ordained priest in 1995, Chorbishop Benjamin came with nothing to a community that had nothing. In those years, Georgians of all kinds suffered tremendous deprivations. They lacked water, food and fuel. A once-favored republic of the Soviet Union, in which numerous republics were connected in a complex web of economic dependence controlled by Moscow, Georgia descended into chaos when it declared independence. Moscow flipped off the switch, imposing a rail embargo and cutting the flow of everything from power and fuel to meat and dairy products. While economic advances have been made since, the country has yet to recover.
The young priest has breathed new life into the Assyro-Chaldean community, building a gorgeous church, appointing it with icons and furnishings handsomely made by parishioners trained in the parish’s many workshops. (Chorbishop Benjamin descends from a long line of carpenters, and his exquisite work furnishes even the parish conference room.) But, he admits, he is dealing with a reality common in the lands of the Eastern churches: emigration.
“We cannot stop this reality,” he said, adding that many young men from the community, particularly between the ages of 25 and 45 have moved to Istanbul. There, they find work in what is clearly the economic and political powerhouse of this region, Turkey. Most of these laborers are unskilled, and have only a remedial education. “Boys do not study. Our girls do, but once they finish university they don’t want to marry an unemployed boy with no education,” the chorbishop said.
We ended our pastoral visit on a high note, however, visiting with the many parishioners who work with their shepherd in producing Assyro-Chaldean dictionaries, lectionaries, vestments and even sacramentals, such as enameled medals and crosses. Many of these items are commissioned by parishes in the Americas, Europe and Oceania, enabling Chorbishop Benjamin to feed his sheep with income as he nourishes them spiritually.
We ended Tuesday with visits to many of Caritas Georgia’s excellent programs in its Caritas House, which stands on the outskirts of the city. Caritas Georgia is an aid organization of the Catholic churches in Georgia — Armenian, Assyro-Chaldean and Roman — and programs include spiritual formation for its staff and volunteers; workshops for needy children such as decorative arts, music, dance, iconography, art therapy and carpentry; and a soup kitchen and social programs for impoverished pensioners. The size, scope and quality of care is breathtaking. The imagination and commitment of the team running these programs is humbling.
A soprano performs at a gathering of members of the Harmonia Club, founded by Caritas Georgia. (video: Michael La Civita)
Walking through the halls as the sun set, I distinctly heard a waltz by the great Polish composer, Frederic Chopin. The sound from the piano was clear and the playing, professional. But this was not a recording. The instrument needed tuning, but it did not mar the beauty of the waltz. We walked into a hushed room, were ushered to a seat as if in a concert hall and watched and listened as the musician poured her heart and soul into that waltz. When she finished the last chord, her audience, erect in their seats, applauded politely and happily. She then began a Russian love song, her trained soprano voice strong yet soft.
I watched her audience, impoverished elderly pensioners all, listening and yet perhaps not. “What were they thinking of?” I thought. “Remembering their youth, their former lives as architects, economists, doctors and lawyers?” These beneficiaries of Caritas Georgia’s “Harmonia Club” — including the retired artist on the piano — were not peasants from the villages, but well educated men and women who survive on less than $95 a month (the average household income is $488).
Pointing to the musician as the audience applauded, Nino Tcharkhalashvili, Caritas’s human resources manager, said the pianist lives with her 90+-year-old mother, pooling together their meager incomes.
We left as the pianist ended an aria in honor of her mother, seated behind her, a survivor of the “Great Patriotic War,” World War II. The audience gave mother and daughter a standing ovation.
15 November 2013
Tags: Cultural Identity Poor/Poverty Village life Georgia Caucasus
In Ethiopia, school meals greatly improve concentration among students, such as Teklit Gebru of Sebeya. To read more about efforts to feed the hungry in Ethiopia, check out Hungry to Learn in the Autumn issue of ONE. And visit our Ethiopia giving page to learn how you can help. (photo: Petterik Wiggers)
15 November 2013
Tags: Ethiopia Children Education ONE magazine Hunger
In this 5 October photo, Syrian refugee children gather around a fire near their makeshift tents in Ankara, Turkey. (photo: CNS/Umit Bekta, Reuters)
United Nations shocked by Syrian refugees being turned away (Daily Star Lebanon) On Friday, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) expressed alarm over reports that Greece and Bulgaria were turning away Syrians fleeing their war-ravaged homeland, forcing them to return to overloaded Turkey. “Push-backs and prevention of entry can put asylum-seekers at further risk and expose them to additional trauma,” UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards told reporters, saying that all states must cease such practices immediately…
In Syria, a new order for daily bread (Los Angeles Times) The war in Syria has disrupted food supplies, and few scarce commodities are missed more than bread, a staple in the nation. At the height of the shortages last year, Syrians posted sonnets online about a boy and his beloved: a loaf of bread. Shortages in opposition neighborhoods and towns lead to long lines and crowding at the few functioning bakeries, which become targets for government shelling or airstrikes in which dozens have been killed. Now bakeries here in Aleppo no longer sell directly to customers. “The whole point was to avoid the crowding,” said Yusuf Hirih, owner of a bakery in Kalaseh neighborhood…
‘Little flowers’ of solidarity blossoming in the desert of Syria’s war (AsiaNews) “Little flowers” are blossoming in the desert of Syria’s war, tended by acts of charity and solidarity towards civilians crushed by bombs and overwhelmed by hunger, according to Melkite Greek Catholic Archbishop Jean-Clement Jeanbart of Aleppo and Archbishop Mario Zenari, papal nuncio to Syria. In the stories that they tell, the two prelates describe another Syria, one that survives alongside the Syria of hatred and destruction covered by international media. “Through its charity work, the Catholic Church is trying to regain the sense of love and brotherhood between Christians and Muslims that the war has destroyed,” said Archbishop Jean-Clement…
India needs a Magna Carta for children’s rights (Fides) “Every month about 100,000 Indian children die from causes related to malnutrition. Many die because of infectious diseases that could be cured, but malnutrition has weakened their immune systems,” said Sajan George Kavinkalath, president of the Mother Teresa Foundation for Children, in an appeal for the protection and safeguarding of childhood in India. “The first task of social justice is to save the lives of children. … A solemn legislative affirmation is needed on equal access to education for girls and against any discrimination of gender and caste or economic and social status, a sort of Magna Carta for the child…”
Syro-Malabar Catholic Church protests Western Ghats report (The Pioneer) The Catholic Church in Kerala has taken a stance against recommendations of the Madhav Gadgil and Kasturirangan committees for the protection of the Western Ghats and its ecology, saying that implementation of the proposals would put the farmers in the state’s high ranges into peril. A pastoral letter issued by Syro-Malabar Bishop Mathew Anikkuzhikkattil of Idukki asked farmers and people of the high ranges to deal with political parties and leaders supporting the panel reports in an organized manner…
Chaldean patriarch: ‘We fear for our survival’ (Aid to the Church in Need) Hopes are high ahead of the meeting of the Catholic patriarchs of the Middle East with the pope. Patriarch Louis Raphael I, the head of the Chaldean Church, which is in full communion with Rome, recently spoke to the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, remarking that he expects much from the meeting. The patriarch, who resides in Baghdad, described it as a great challenge for the Christians in the Middle East to live as full and equal citizens of their countries. “Emigration is threatening our present and our future. We fear for our survival…”
14 November 2013
Tags: Refugees Syrian Civil War Kerala Syro-Malabar Catholic Church Chaldean Patriarch Louis Raphael I
An Armenian farmer in Anjar, Lebanon, displays some of his produce. (photo: Armineh Johannes)
In 2002, we profiled Lebanon’s “Little Armenia,” which includes the Beirut suburb of Bourj Hammoud and the rural town of Anjar in the Bekaa Valley region, some 60 miles to the northeast.
In Anjar, this transplant community of farmers was able to live off their allotted land for decades. However, recent times have brought new challenges:
Overlooking the Mediterranean, on the slope of Musa Dagh (Mount Moses), a stone’s throw from the Syrian border, more than 5,000 Armenians from six villages, were flushed from their homes by the Turks. …
Finally, in September 1939, with the help of the French Navy, they were relocated to the rugged, dry land of Anjar, in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. While awaiting the construction of 1,000 single-room homes, these refugees lived for two years in tents. During the first months of their exile, malnutrition and malaria caused the death of some 500 Armenians. …
Despite the rugged climate of Anjar, the Armenians learned to work the land as they had back in Musa Dagh. In addition to 5,400 square yards of residential land, each family was allotted 9,360 square yards of agricultural land. …
“Once the lands were distributed, each family received 110 pounds of wheat for planting,” he adds. “We were able to make a living.”
“Today, I am unable to earn a living,” laments Boghos Taslakian, who is 77. “I sell my cabbages for 10 cents a pound at the market. In reality, agriculture has reached a dead end in Lebanon. My children are no longer interested — they don’t even know the exact location of the family farm. The majority of the youngsters are attracted by other activities, such as jewelry making.”
In order to make ends meet, farmers must take on other activities. After working as a farmer for more than 60 years, Assadour Makhoulian was forced to open a small supermarket in the village. Today his son operates it.
Read the rest in the July 2002 issue of our magazine.
14 November 2013
Tags: Lebanon Cultural Identity Armenian Apostolic Church Farming/Agriculture Armenian Catholic Church
Pope Francis takes off his zucchetto as he leaves his general audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican on 6 November. (photo: CNS/Paul Haring)
Prosecutor warns of a mafia threat against Pope Francis (Washington Post) Pope Francis could be at risk from the ‘Ndrangheta organized crime organization, according to a leading anti-mob prosecutor who has himself been the target of threats from the mafia. Nicola Gratteri, 55, a state prosecutor in the southern Italian region of Calabria, where the ‘Ndrangheta is most active, said the pope’s effort to reform the church is making the ‘Ndrangheta “very nervous.” The organization is considered by experts in Italy to be the most dangerous and coordinated mafia organization in the country. “For many years, the mafia has laundered money and made investments with the complicity of the church. But now the pope is dismantling the poles of economic power in the Vatican, and that is dangerous…”
Memory of a mass killing becomes another casualty of Egyptian protests (New York Times) Memory has become a frequent casualty of Egypt’s politics since the uprising against former President Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Leaders have tried to wipe away histories of atrocities by foot-dragging on investigations until new bloodshed dulls memories of the old. But nothing so far has matched the effort by the military-backed government and its supporters to extinguish the memory of Rabaa al Adawiya, the site of the worst mass killing in Egypt’s modern history, and a dangerous reminder of absent justice and Egypt’s festering political feuds. Reminders of the past have become a threat. Athletes have drawn outrage and censure for displaying the four-finger Rabaa symbol — Rabaa means “fourth” in Arabic — at competitions. For its part, the military quickly transformed the square where as many as 900 people were killed, leaving no hint of the violence except the bullet holes in lampposts and homes…
Egypt: Church threatens to reject constitution (Asharq al Awsat) The Coptic Church has threatened to reject Egypt’s new draft constitution over the terminology used to describe Christians and Jews. A member of the 50-member constitution drafting committee, speaking on condition of anonymity, revealed that the differences revolve around an article that uses the term “People of the Book” to refer to Christians and Jews, which some from the two minority groups find offensive. Egypt’s Christians have rejected the term “People of the Book,” preferring the article refer specifically to “non-Muslims…”
Jordan rejects Jewish prayer at Al Aqsa mosque compound (Al Monitor) Jordanian-Israeli ties, always under pressure, could be heading for trouble if the Knesset approves a controversial bill to divide Al Aqsa mosque compound in east Jerusalem, allowing Jews to pray in the Muslim compound. The bill was drafted by Israeli Deputy Minister for Religious Affairs Rabbi Eli Ben Dahan and was rejected by Arab Knesset members, who warned that if passed, the law could lead to the eruption of a third intifada. Under the peace treaty between Jordan and Israel, the former maintains a special supervisory role over Muslim and Christian holy sites in east Jerusalem, occupied by Israel since the 1967 war…
Syrian Kurds gaining ground, push for autonomy (Christian Science Monitor) Emboldened by a string of victories over powerful Al Qaeda affiliates fighting in Syria, Kurds there have taken a major step toward autonomy. On Tuesday, Kurdish groups announced the formation of an interim autonomous government in Syria’s Kurdish region, with elections to follow. The announcement comes on the heels of battle successes against Jabhat al Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, among the most powerful of the myriad homegrown and foreign forces fighting the Assad regime…
Russian Orthodox Church returns to Mideast (Al Monitor) Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, the Russian Orthodox Church’s chief external affairs officer, met with a number of state, political and religious officials in the Lebanese capital, bearing several messages. The most important was Russia’s decision to effectively act as the protector of Christians in the Levant and as their defender and legal representative, perhaps the only real one they have on an international level. The metropolitan went on to emphasize that the goals, principles and interests of the Russian Federation are predicated on “the survival of Levantine Christians in their countries, and their peaceful coexistence with their Muslim compatriots, away from external attempts to destabilize those countries…”
Serbian Orthodox Church celebrates “Vraci” (inSerbia) Today, the Serbian Orthodox Church celebrates the feast of Sts. Cosmas and Damian, popularly known as “Vraci” or “Vracevi.” These saints are considered patrons of the medical profession. Sts. Cosmas and Damian were twin brothers, physicians and early Christian martyrs born in Cilicia, part of today’s Turkey. They practiced their profession in the seaport of Ayas, Adana and the Roman province of Syria. They did not accept payment for their services, and many believe that this is how they attracted many people to Christian faith…
13 November 2013
Tags: Egypt Pope Francis Syrian Civil War Jordan Russian Orthodox Church
Editor’s note: our colleague Michael J.L. La Civita is traveling through the Caucasus and filing periodic posts to Facebook. Some initial impressions and pictures are below. He hopes to file a more complete report from Tbilisi tomorrow. In the meantime, for more on life in that part of the world, check out the story Staying Power, on Georgia’s Armenian Catholics, in the Autumn edition of ONE.
Before we set off to the southwestern portion of the country — a wretchedly poor and underserved region — I wanted to share a few pictures from yesterday: terrific folks doing great work for the poor, homeless and poor children, penniless pensioners and the indigent.
CNEWA has been supporting these efforts for years, though many are now self-sufficient.
Today we traveled about a hundred miles southwest of Tbilisi to a land where time has stood still, even here in Georgia.
We climbed the Caucasus Mountains about 12,000 feet above sea level, in the Samtskhe-Javakheti district, spending time in the Armenian villages of Eshtia, Ujmana and lastly Bavra.
The images here are from our travels and focus on Eshtia and its parish priest, Father Anton.
The 12th man from his family to serve as priest and a native of the village, he described life in the village, which is totally made up of subsistence farmers, who lack running water, roads and anything resembling what we call recreation.
They work, eat and sleep.
Over a beautiful lunch prepared by his wife, he told us how the community was placed here by a Russian general in the 1830’s, how the Turks invaded in 1915 and spared this village while others were wiped out, and the guilt the old-timers still feel.
The day was cold, wet and muddy. I saw few people, as most are leaving this gorgeous but hard land.
Meet Julia Sirinian, a teacher, community leader, translator and journalist.
Despite the rain, the mud, the grinding poverty and the fact that many men from her village of Bavra have abandoned their wives and families — including her own — for a new life in Russia, she is determined to save her “beautiful village.”
After meeting several families, taking coffee and sweets with one in particular, I see why she is so passionate about a place neglected by almost everyone.
13 November 2013
Tags: Poor/Poverty Village life Georgia Farming/Agriculture Caucasus
Pope Francis meets with Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, head of ecumenical relations for the Russian Orthodox Church, during a private meeting at the Vatican on 12 November. (photo: CNS/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters)
Pope Francis met yesterday with Metropolitan Hilarion. ANSA reports:
The senior Orthodox church official, whose post is similar to that of a foreign minister, is visiting Rome for a series of meetings including a conference Wednesday organized by the Vatican Congregation for the Family.
Tuesday’s meeting coincides with a similar session in Moscow between the archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Angelo Scola, and the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill.
It also comes only a few weeks before the pope is scheduled to receive Russian President Vladimir Putin on 25 November.
And Rome Reports has more about yesterday’s meeting:
(video: Rome Reports)
13 November 2013
Tags: Pope Francis Ecumenism Christian Unity Russian Orthodox Church Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk
In his final address as president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Timothy Dolan called religious freedom “a central social and political concern of our time” and urged the bishops to make the protection of religious liberty around the world a priority in their work. (video: CNS)
Cardinal Dolan urges bishops to make religious freedom a priority (CNS) New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, CNEWA’s chair, called upon his brother bishops to champion the cause of people around the world being persecuted because of their faith even as the bishops continue to prevent what he described as infringements upon religious practice in the United States. In his final address as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops at the opening of their fall general assembly on 11 November in Baltimore, Cardinal Dolan outlined a series of steps the bishops can take to protect religious freedom around the world…
Pope expresses deep sorrow for deaths of children in Syria (Vatican Radio) During the General Audience Wednesday in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis expressed great sadness over the tragic loss of innocent lives in the conflict in Syria, particularly the deaths this week of a number of school children in a Damascus suburb. “Let us pray that these tragedies do not occur!” he said. “These are the true battles to fight…”
Syrian mothers in refugee camp brace for winter (Al Monitor) More than 200 Syrian babies are born in Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan every month, and with winter on its way and a shortage of baby food, families are worried. In Zaatari, manufactured milk for babies is scarce, too, just like diapers, which can only be bought every few months and are very expensive…
Egypt’s Christians close ranks as kidnappings spike (Christian Science Monitor) A terrifying ordeal has become familiar for Christians throughout southern Egypt. More than 100 people have been kidnapped for ransom in this marginalized region in the last two and a half years, nearly all of them Christians, according to activists and church officials. And there has been a sharp increase in kidnappings in the months since 14 August, when hundreds were killed as police broke up two sit-ins supporting Muhammad Morsi, Egypt’s recently ousted president…
Israel halts West Bank settlement plan under pressure (Al Jazeera) Israel’s prime minister attempted to halt a plan to explore the potential construction of thousands of new homes in West Bank settlements, saying it had created an “unnecessary confrontation” with the international community that threatened to weaken his campaign against Iran’s suspect nuclear program. The plan, announced Tuesday by Israel’s Housing Ministry, drew angry criticism from officials in Washington, who said they had been blindsided by the announcement. A State Department statement reiterated that “we do not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement activity.” The U.N. deems all Israeli settlements on land occupied during the war of June 1967 to be illegal…
Iraq attacks kill 27 as Shiites mass for Ashura (Daily Star Lebanon) Violence across Iraq, including bombings against Shiites, killed 27 people on Wednesday as worshipers massed in a shrine city on the eve of major commemoration rituals often targeted by militants. The bloodshed was the latest in a months-long surge in unrest that has forced Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki to appeal for United States military assistance, as Iraqi action has failed to stem the unrelenting wave of attacks. Bombings mostly struck north and west of Baghdad, targeting Shiite Muslims and members of the security forces…
Short overview of wine in Georgia (Heritage Daily) According to a Georgian legend, God took a supper break while he was creating the world. He became so involved in his meal that he by accident tripped over the high peaks of the Caucasus and as a result he spilled his own food onto the land below. The land below blessed with the scraps of Heaven’s table was Georgia. The beginning of human civilizations is closely connected to the development of agriculture and the history of cultivated plants, and Georgia played a crucial role in this process. One of the reasons for that is that wine culture in Georgia can be traced to early prehistoric times. The research of linguists indicates that the root of the Indo-European term for ‘wine’ (“vino”) might derive from the Georgian word “Rvino”…
12 November 2013
Tags: Iraq Violence against Christians Georgia Refugee Camps Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan
Svetitskhoveli Cathedral’s current structure was built about a thousand years ago in Mtskheta, near Georgia’s capital of Tbilisi. (photo: Michael La Civita)
It did not take me long upon arriving in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi on Saturday to feel as though I had come upon a different land in a different era, as if I were suddenly transported to J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth.
Mountains are capped with castles and chapels. Villages huddle close together on the mountainsides. Stone churches, seemingly hewn from the rock, ambitiously rise to the heavens. Church bells summon the faithful. Wood fires and burning brown charcoal permeate the air.
Police sirens, automobiles and celebrating teenagers dressed in the universal uniform of jeans and black sweaters, however, grounded me in the 21st century.
“But where am I?” I thought. “Is this Asia or Europe? East or West?”
On Sunday, my colleague Thomas Varghese and I attended Mass in the restored 19th-century Catholic cathedral dedicated to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The neo-Gothic church, the statues of the Little Flower and St. Joseph, and the familiar melodies were comforting. Yet the great choir, dominated by a formidable contralto and mezzo-soprano, sang in a language barely penetrable.
We began our journey through Middle Earth in earnest in the ancient Georgian capital of Mtskheta (pronounced “Skayta”).
Set at the confluence of two rivers and surrounded by mountains, this has been Georgia’s spiritual center for some 3,000 years.
High above the town, the sixth-century Jvari Church crowns a mountaintop. An impressive structure, it employs certain architectural techniques contemporary with the great churches of Constantinople and in advance — 500 years or so — of the Romanesque churches of Italy and western Europe.
Down below, dominating the town is the Cathedral of the Life-Giving Column. Sounds pagan? Therein lies a legend.
The structure dates to a fourth-century Christian king, Mirian III, who ordered the church to be built over a Zoroastrian temple after heeding the words of a missionary named Nino. Armenian, Byzantine, Georgian, Greek and Latin sources all indicate that, in circa 300, Nino, a woman from Cappadocia, left Jerusalem for the ancient Georgian kingdom of Kartli in search of the robe from Christ’s crucifixion.
“Equal to the apostles,” as Georgians revere her today, St. Nino worked primarily among the kingdom’s Jews, who were her first disciples. Written about a century after her death, “The Life of St. Nino” records the close relationship that existed between Nino and the Jews of Mtskheta (the capital of Kartli), as well as between the churches of Georgia and Jerusalem. It also details the conversion of King Mirian III, his establishment of Christianity as the faith of the kingdom and the erection of the shrine in Mtskheta to house the robe of Christ, known as the Cathedral of Svetitskhoveli, or the “life-giving pillar.”
As we approached the cathedral, bells and bongs in an ominous rhythm deafened us. The sights and sounds here were unlike anything I had experienced.
Entering the cathedral, which was rebuilt in the 11th century — surviving even the onslaught of the murderous Timur the Lame 300 years later — we were caught up in a whirl of activity; priests were baptizing infants, children and even adults in the baptistery, near a medieval replica of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, while others celebrated weddings before the greenish iconostasis.
Dressed in fashionable white gowns and veiled as required in the Orthodox Christian tradition, the brides seemed pale holding the marriage candles. Their grooms, dressed simply in black, held the arms of their brides as they processed three times in front of the iconostasis, wearing Georgian-style marriage crowns adorned with seed pearls and gems. To a couple — there were four — they looked like prince and princesses on their wedding day: regal, erect, solemn.
As we stood there, marveling at the liturgies, the ancient space, the crowds, the frescoes and icons, I thought back to the musings of my Georgian host, Liana, after we had consumed a liter and a half of wine at dinner Saturday night.
“We Georgians are day dreamers, aristocrats,” she said, laughing. “We feast, laugh, celebrate living, and the next day, we are depressed, wondering how we will pay for it. It does not occur to us to work hard, like the Armenians.”
Monday, Thomas and I spent the day meeting various church leaders — Armenian and Roman Catholic as well as the Vatican ambassador — and Caritas, with whom we have partnered for years.
“We are here to listen and learn,” I explained. We heard a lot.
The churches here are doing wonderful things: Caring for the elderly who have been abandoned; working with street children and protecting them from trafficking; providing assistance to impoverished families; resettling internally displaced families. The list goes on and on.
These efforts are being done with almost no money, in an impoverished country, with little assistance from the outside world. The assistance is given to all regardless of belief or unbelief; “need does not discriminate,” we heard in many forms, time and time again.
Yes, there are challenges. But what unites those behind these efforts is the commitment to serve as commanded by the Gospel so “that all may be one.”
Carvings such as this adorn the stone surfaces of the Jvari Church. (photo: Michael La Civita)
Tags: Christianity Georgia Church history Architecture Caucasus