20 November 2013
In this photo from May, Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregory III receives Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, prefect of the Congregation for Eastern Churches, in the patriarchal residence in Raboué, north of Beirut. (photo: Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarchate)
Pope to meet with patriarchs of Eastern churches (Middle East Online) Pope Francis is meeting with the patriarchs of the Eastern churches to discuss the future of Christians in the Middle East, the Catholic Church’s role in Arab countries, its relations with the Orthodox Church and the problems of stability in the region. Maronite Patriarch Bechara Peter I, Chaldean Patriarch Raphael Louis I, Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregory III, Syrian Catholic Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III and Armenian Catholic Patriarch Nerses Bedros XIX are expected at the three-day meeting that will focus on the Eastern churches in the 50 years since Vatican II. Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, prefect of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches, will lead the meeting…
Melkite patriarch urges Christians to stay in Syria (Daily Star Lebanon) Patriarch Gregory III of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church has called on his fellow Christians to stay in Syria, despite the brutal conflict raging in the country. “I say to my children, stay in your country, the future will be difficult, but it will be better, God willing,” the Syrian patriarch told AFP. “I say to the European countries that want to help, help people … but don’t encourage people to emigrate…”
Carrying weapons the new norm for Iraqi youth (Al Monitor) Many young Iraqis have started carrying knives and other bladed weapons whenever they leave their homes, to the extent that it has become an almost indispensable part of their persons. That is how Barea Saeed, 18, from Baghdad described it to Al Monitor; he claims to feel weak and threatened whenever he finds himself without a knife in hand. While most young Iraqis claim that they have no intention of using the weapons in their possession except as a matter of last resort, the day-to-day reality of street stabbings and proliferating knife wounds tells a different story…
Iraqi refugees work to realize the American dream (Al Arabiya) The Iraqi diaspora is now dispersed throughout the world, with the United States accepting well over 90,000 Iraqi refugees since 2003. Many refugees sent to the United States are moving to Dearborn, Michigan, largely due to the fact that there is a large Lebanese community establishment there, as well as a “newer” Iraqi immigrant base that came to the United States in the early 1990s after the first Gulf War.
Attacks on Egyptian military could signal nascent insurgency (Christian Science Monitor) Ten Egyptian soldiers were killed after a car bomb exploded next to their bus in the northern Sinai Peninsula today. The number of attacks in the Sinai has increased since the July 3 military coup that overthrew President Mohamed Morsi, raising concerns that sporadic attacks will flare into a sustained insurgency. More than 100 Egyptian security forces have been killed in the Sinai since Mr. Morsi’s removal, according to the BBC…
19 November 2013
Tags: Iraq Egypt Refugees Christian Unity Melkite Patriarch Gregory III of Antioch
The Armenian Catholic village of Ghazanchi is located in the Shirak region of Armenia, in the far northwestern part of the country. (photo: Michael La Civita)
Cold has descended upon the plateau on which sits Gyumri, Armenia’s second-largest city. Located nearly 5,000 feet above sea level, the city has been swept by a dusty wind, its broad boulevards and low buildings offering little protection.
Before the great earthquake that devastated this region in December 1988 — killing more than 25,000 people — some 222,000 people lived in this cultural center, then known as Leninakan. Today, fewer than 146,000 remain. The population of the city, and the villages that surround it, continue to lose people as men seek work abroad as “seasonal migrants.” Some, said Anahit Mkhoyan of Caritas Armenia, settle first in Holland, then Belgium and finally France, rootless and distant from their families in Armenia. Some return, their children unfamiliar with the Armenian language, and Caritas has worked to reintegrate more than 150 families. Others leave for Russia.
“Usually, the men go as laborers, sending remittances back to their families,” she said, noting that 90 percent of Armenia’s gross domestic product is in the form of remittances. “But after a while, their families lose contact, as the men find Russian wives and begin another family.”
The remains of this Soviet-era school, wrecked by the earthquake in 1988, have been further destroyed by neglect and subsequent vandalism. (photo: Michael La Civita)
The depopulated region, dotted with ruined Soviet-era structures; the rugged, wind-swept landscape; and the arid weather and lack of vegetation belie the warmth and hospitality of the people. At a meeting of the Caritas team, after a rather depressing discussion about the region’s many problems — record levels of unemployment, a rise in HIV infections, emigration and more — one program manager said: “Those seated here are real Armenian patriots. This is our Motherland, and we can’t leave it.”
We first visited the construction site of the new Aregak Center for Children. A rehabilitation facility of Caritas for children with multiple disabilities, it has received funding from a number of donors, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and CNEWA. Afterward, we visited the current facility, located in cramped quarters in a historic part of town.
The activities of the professionally trained team, assisted by a group of closely directed and carefully selected volunteers, include physical rehabilitation, art therapy, and basic education and exercises in communication for some 30 children. The new facility will expand the efforts to assist a hundred more. Stay tuned for more developments!
A young patient and her mother wait to be seen at Redemptoris Mater Hospital. (photo: Michael La Civita)
We later drove to the northernmost town in Armenia, Ashotzk, located in the Shirak region. There, we visited the Redemptoris Mater Hospital, which was built with funds from CNEWA and Caritas Italy and given by Pope John Paul II as a gift to the Armenian people after the 1988 earthquake.
“Natives of Shirak often refer to the area as the Armenian Siberia and consider themselves exiled from much of the country’s cultural and economic life, especially the prosperity many compatriots in Yerevan, the nation’s capital, have been enjoying in recent years,” wrote Gayane Abrahamyan in the pages of ONE magazine in March 2009:
Indeed, the gap between the socioeconomic development in Yerevan and the lethargy of Armenia’s rural, impoverished north widens by the day. Whereas newly constructed supermarkets, boutiques and luxury high-rise buildings illuminate Yerevan’s streets, the only signs of modern life in Ashotzk are the occasional car and Tiramayr Narek [Armenian for Redemptoris Mater] Hospital.
Ashotzk rises some 6,600 feet above sea level and is covered in three to five feet of snow six months out of the year. During the winter months, temperatures often drop to 40 degrees below zero and many of the roads are closed.
One road, known as the “life road,” is kept accessible throughout the winter and is used only in the case of medical emergencies. It extends 17 miles from the village of Berdashen, the neighboring community closest to Armenia’s northern border, directly to the hospital. Before the hospital commissioned the construction of the “life road,” residents had no way of reaching medical care in the winter months. To this day, residents still try to plan their pregnancies so that mothers give birth between the months of April and October.
The hospital is the cleanest facility I have ever entered. This, says Camillian Father Mario Cuccarollo, who administers the facility, is the work of Sister Noel. A Belgian Little Sister of Jesus, the petite Sister Noel runs a tight ship — I do not think I saw one scuff mark on the floor or walls. And it is busy, serving more than 150,000 patients annually from as far away as Gyumri (62 miles south) and Vardenis (124 miles southeast) to many of the Armenian populated villages in the southern Georgian region of Samtskhe-Javakheti. The hospital’s talented surgeons — including Dr. Sargis Vardanian, named the country’s leading surgeon in 2013 — conduct about 1,800 complicated surgeries per year.
But the hospital is in danger of closing, as Father Mario finds it increasingly difficult to find the million euros needed to keep it operating. This would be a tragedy, as the facility is the only one to offer excellent care in a wretchedly impoverished region for a nominal fee for those few who can pay — or gratis for most of those who cannot.
“Were it not for the hospital, people all around this region would be dead by now,” one woman told ONE in 2009.
“This is no exaggeration; they would not survive.”
After visiting the region, entering its stark and lifeless villages, traveling its unpaved “paved” roads and meeting its rugged people, I have no doubts about the effectiveness and necessity of the local church and its mission of accompanying a suffering people. Without these women and men I have been fortunate to meet — priest, religious and lay — these people would not survive. Indeed, this is no exaggeration.
Many villages suffer severely from neglect, some seeing no significant construction in upwards of 30 years. (photo: Michael La Civita)
19 November 2013
Tags: Children Cultural Identity Health Care Armenia Poor/Poverty
A seminarian walks down the corridor of the St. Athanasius Greek Catholic Theological Institute in Hajdúdorog, Hungary. As part of its mission, the institute provides seminarians and lay students an education in both the Byzantine and Latin rites. To learn about life as a seminarian in Hungary, read Jacqueline Ruyak’s To Be a Priest, from the March 2007 issue of ONE. (photo: Tivadar Domaniczky)
19 November 2013
Tags: Eastern Christianity Seminarians Hungary Greek Catholic Church Hungarian Greek Catholic
During the Mass to conclude the Year of Faith, Pope Francis will hand out 35 hard copies of his first apostolic exhortation. (video: Rome Reports)
Pope Francis to release first apostolic exhortation (Catholic News Agency) The Vatican announced today that Pope Francis will officially deliver his first apostolic exhortation to coincide with the end of the Year of Faith. During an 18 November press conference, the Holy See revealed that the title of the new document is “Evangelii Gaudium,” or “The Joy of the Gospel,” which will be publicly proclaimed by the pope during the closing Mass for the Year of Faith on Sunday, 24 November. The exhortation is a concluding document of last year’s Synod of Bishops, which centered on the theme of “The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith…”
Lebanon blasts hit Iran’s embassy in Beirut (BBC) At least 22 people have been killed and more than 140 injured in a double suicide bombing outside the Iranian embassy in the Lebanese capital Beirut. The Sunni jihadist group Abdullah Azzam Brigades said it was behind the attack. The Iranian ambassador in Beirut had earlier confirmed the death of Ebrahim Ansari, Iran’s cultural attaché, saying it was not clear if he had been in the embassy itself or one of the residential buildings nearby. However, the Iranian foreign ministry now says he is alive…
Suicide bombing in Beirut; sectarian violence plaguing the Middle East (Fides) Paul Karam, director of the Pontifical Mission Societies in Lebanon, responded to the bombing in Beirut with the following statement: “Unfortunately, today’s bombing is not an isolated incident. Sectarian violence serves a purpose, and wants to set fire in order to destabilize the entire Middle East. For their delirious plots they do not have any qualms about killing children who go to school, or adults who go to work or return home. As Christians, we share the pain of our people, and we keep saying that in no way can similar acts of terror seek justification…”
Syria fighting in Qalamoun triggers new exodus to Lebanon (Washington Post) A new Syrian offensive in the mountainous terrain bordering Lebanon has triggered a fresh exodus of thousands of Syrians into a country already burdened by the largest number of refugees in the region, United Nations officials said Sunday. A thousand families sought shelter between Friday and Sunday in the eastern Lebanese town of Arsal after government forces attacked their villages in Syria, according to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees…
Aid workers struggle to get polio vaccine to Syrians (Christian Science Monitor) Syria was declared polio free in 1999. But with at least 10 recent confirmed cases of the paralyzing virus, international health workers are worried about a regional outbreak of the virus, particularly given the constant flow of Syrians to neighboring countries. Before the Syrian uprising began in March 2011, the vaccination rate in Syria was above 90 percent, bolstered by a relatively strong public health system. But after almost three years of violent and destructive civil conflict, that figure has dropped to 68 percent…
Coptic Orthodox Church names three new bishops (OCP Media Network) Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II installed three new bishops on Sunday, 17 November, at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo. Two bishops will serve in Egypt; the third will preside over the newly formed Eparchy of New York and New England in the United States…
18 November 2013
Tags: Syria Pope Francis Lebanon Refugees Beirut
In 1996, the tenth-century Armenian Apostolic Haghpat Monastery was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. (photo: Michael La Civita)
The drive south from the Georgian capital of Tbilisi to the northern Armenian city of Gyumri on Saturday was nothing short of spectacular. At times the landscape looked lunar, with pockmarked hills barren of vegetation. Then, it changed; cattle grazed on mountainous plateaus and snow-capped peaks loomed in the background. High above the meadows, churches and chapels crowned with the distinctive conical dome of the region sprouted from the landscape, constructed from the tufa of the mountains. Breathtaking.
Anahit Mkhoyan, who directs Caritas Armenia, welcomed us at the border and led Thomas Varghese and me through two ancient monasteries, both marvels of architecture and art: Haghpat and Sanahin. Built on opposite mountains by master and student in the tenth century, the churches, chapels, libraries and refractories — all intact — speak of a highly sophisticated culture.
A local woman volunteered to provide an impromptu tour of the village of Haghpat. (photo: Michael La Civita)
Located on the Silk Route at the crossroads of Asia and Europe, Armenia embraced Christianity in 301, becoming the first Christian nation. The Armenian Church severed relations with much of Christendom in the sixth century, largely to preserve the integrity of the Armenian nation, squeezed between Christian Byzantium and Zoroastrian Persia. But, as I wrote for ONE magazine in a profile of the Armenian Apostolic Church in 2006, the church:
Did not, however, demand the severance of commercial or cultural relationships with the Byzantine Empire, including the imperial church. For more than 400 years, trade between the two flourished. Byzantine emperors employed Armenian scribes, who flocked to Constantinople. Byzantine subjects served Armenian prelates and members of the nobility. Armenians engineered Byzantine defense systems and restored the dome of Haghia Sophia, the Great Church of Eastern Christendom. Armenians even ascended the Byzantine throne, establishing dynasties that supported the redevelopment of an independent Armenia, which cushioned the barrier between the Byzantine Christian and ascendant Arab Muslim worlds.
The medieval Armenian capital city of Ani — now a ghostly ruin just inside Turkey’s border with Armenia — demonstrates the architectural sophistication and artistic wealth of medieval Armenia. Described in contemporary chronicles as the “city of a 1001 churches,” Ani’s surviving churches are technical wonders, utilizing architectural devices — such as blind arcades and ribbed vaults — that would later support Europe’s Gothic cathedrals. Surviving frescoes and sculpted panels depicting kings and catholicoi, saints and angels, birds and crosses, reveal Arab, Byzantine, classical Greek and Persian influences.
The liturgical rites of the medieval Armenian Church, particularly the Soorp Badarak, or Divine Liturgy, mirrored the cosmopolitan nature of Armenian ecclesiastical art and architecture: While historians suggest the supremacy of Syriac sources, they also recognize influences from the churches of Antioch, Cappadocia and Jerusalem.
Later, particularly during the time of the Crusades, the church “increasingly adopted Latin (Roman Catholic) customs and liturgical practices as contacts with the Catholic Church increased.”
Though located in a remote area of Armenia, the many churches and chapels of Haghpat and Sanahin contain the same features possessed by the churches in the former capital of Ani. Armenia’s famous cross stones, or khachkars, litter the grounds and are artistic marvels. One khachkar, known as the All Savior Cross, depicts a suffering Jesus hanging on the cross and has been standing in its place since 1273. The carvings, which feature intricate lines symbolizing eternal life carved from the tufa, remind me of the great Celtic crosses of Ireland and the Celtic manuscript miniatures of the early Irish church.
Later, over a sumptuous dinner of salads and grilled pork kebabs, Anahit stunned me when she said modern scholars believe Armenians and the Irish share a common Celtic lineage. As I look back at the filigree on the crosses, both in Armenia and Ireland, there can be no doubt.
Some khachkars, such as the one seen above at Haghpat Monastery, bear stylistic elements suggesting a connection with ancient Celtic art. (photo: Michael La Civita)
On Sunday, Thomas and I were joined by Declan Murphy of the United States Conference for Catholic Bishops. After joining in the celebration of the Armenian Divine Liturgy at the chapel of the Armenian Catholic Ordinariate in Gyumri, we visited a multipurpose facility for children run by a true powerhouse: Sister Arousiag Sajonian, a “no nonsense nun” I have had the pleasure of knowing for some 16 years.
After a tour of the impressive facility dedicated to Our Lady of Armenia — which generous benefactors of CNEWA helped the sisters to build and equip — the center’s chorus gave a concert, combining traditional Armenian works with Gershwin tunes. The discipline of the voices, the harmonies and sounds created by the girls from all age groups were stunning. The choir and the work of the sisters here are all the more impressive in light of the fact that some of these girls were once homeless, others abandoned by fathers now living in Russia, while some were burdened by mothers engaged in the sex trade to feed their families.
Looking back on the cross stones that mark much of this proud but impoverished land, I am reminded about the redemptive power and meaning of the cross: love conquers death. Here, as exhibited by the Armenian Church — priests, sisters and lay people — love is conquering the evil of poverty and restoring the dignity of life.
This khachkar adorns the monastery in the village of Sanahin, seen as the sister monastery to that of Haghpat. (photo: Michael La Civita)
18 November 2013
Tags: Cultural Identity Georgia Armenian Apostolic Church Architecture Church
A young couple is married in the church of the ancient Gelati Monastery in Georgia. Dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the church was built by King David the Builder in the 12th century. You can find more pictures of the monastery here, and read about Michael La Civita’s journey through the Caucasus here and here. (photo: Michael La Civita)
18 November 2013
Tags: Cultural Identity Village life Eastern Christianity Georgia Eastern Europe
In this photo from September, a Syrian refugee boy flashes a peace sign along the border in Kilis, Turkey. (photo: CNS/Michael Swan, The Catholic Register)
Syrian Alawites hope for change in Turkey (Al Monitor) Syrian Alawite refugees face an added layer of difficulty in Turkey, particularly because they are Alawites. Common observations include issues such as different districts asking them to evacuate parks and mosques turning down their pleas for shelter. A frequent complaint by the refugees is that mosques charge them to use the bathroom. “Even Turkish Alawite doctors, teachers, translators and other civil servants assigned to attend the Syrian refugee camps have faced strong opposition from the camp’s Sunni residents,” said Bereket Kar, an Alawite activist and pundit from the Hatay province of southern Turkey…
Lebanon seeks to establish refugee camps in Syria (Daily Star Lebanon) Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati said Monday Lebanon is looking forward, with the help of the United Nations, to the establishment of Syrian refugee camps inside Syria. Mr. Mikati also revealed that Lebanese authorities have adopted “new measures” to make border control between Lebanon and Syria more effective. He did not give further details…
Syrian tragedy plays out on Jordan’s streets (Al Monitor) Of the 550,000 Syrians in Jordan, 430,000 reside in urban areas like Amman, Zarqa and Mafraq, or in villages near the borders. Middle-class citizens try to find a normal job, and the ones who can afford it — mainly richer entrepreneurs — move their businesses from Damascus to the Jordanian capital. Coming from the war, they all have a tale of loss. Most of the refugees who try to assimilate into Jordanian society have a hard time paying for rent, food and other living expenses. Living in Jordan is “extremely expensive,” Syrians complain, and many are unemployed. Registered refugees receive monthly cash allowances and food coupons from the United Nations…
Iraqi Jewish documents at the U.S. National Archives (New York Times) Books and manuscripts found in a flooded basement of Saddam Hussein’s secret police headquarters are now on display for the first time at the National Archives. They are ragged, warped, torn and stained, and that is after extensive restoration. This new exhibition, “Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage,” presents just 24 artifacts (and some reproductions) selected from 2,700 volumes and tens of thousands of documents the American military found submerged in four feet of fetid water in the Mukhabarat, Iraq’s intelligence building…
Vatican-supported interreligious forum opens in Vienna (Vatican Radio) The first-ever Global Forum of the King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue opens Monday morning in Vienna, Austria. Known by its acronym, KAICIID, the center is an international organization recognized by the United Nations, of which the Holy See is a founding observer. The president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, is slated to be among the speakers at Monday morning’s general assembly…
Chaldean patriarch: Government and religious leaders must unite Iraq (AsiaNews) In a speech before the Iraqi parliament on the occasion of Human Rights Day, Chaldean Patriarch Louis Raphael I said the country’s security situation has “deteriorated”; sectarian divisions are becoming more pronounced, while “regional and international” powers feed the growing fractures…
15 November 2013
Tags: Syria Iraq Refugees Turkey Refugee Camps
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)
Tags: Ethiopia Children Education ONE magazine Hunger