21 November 2013
Thomas Varghese, U.S.C.C.B.’s Declan Murphy, Caritas Armenia director Anahit Mkhoyan and Michael La Civita in front of the Caritas office in Gyumri. (photo: CNEWA)
The romantic notions I may have had about traveling through “Middle Earth” dissipated when I met Syrian Armenians living in the Yerevan residence of Armenian Catholic Archbishop Rafael Minassian. Arriving the other evening, my colleagues and I began chatting with a Syrian Armenian Catholic seminarian who facilitates the care of these 13 families for the archbishop. Originally from the city of Qamishli in northeastern Syria, Pierre (for security purposes his family name will not be published) was passionate about what life was like before the civil war ravaged his country.
“We had liberty, we had freedom,” he said, “My brother is a famous drummer in Syria, he used to be hired for many parties and weddings … but now there is nothing.
“He also taught in the university, but now it is closed.” Ironically, Qamishli was settled by Assyro-Chaldean refugees fleeing Ottoman Turkish soldiers who began slaughtering the empire’s Armenian, Assyro-Chaldean and Greek Christians in 1915.
As Pierre looked to the ground, a young woman came running up the stairs to talk. “I heard your conversation, and I needed to be here.”
A graduate student in architecture in Armenia, she, too, spoke of the former Syria as if it were a lost Eden. “I was the only Christian on my street in Damascus. All my friends were Muslim — Sunni, Alawi, Druze. We didn’t care about which religion the other may have been. And we are still friends.”
She and her Armenian mother are living in Yerevan, but she has heard nothing from her father, an officer in the Syrian army.
Speaking with the archbishop’s staff and the Yerevan team of Caritas Armenia, who are working with a hundred Syrian Armenian refugee families now living in the capital city, we learned that most families have been torn apart; the husband remains behind to mind the property and assets while sending his wife and children to safety — perhaps Armenia, Lebanon or points farther west.
Aram Khachaturyan, who directs the refugee work of Caritas in Yerevan, said 11,000 Armenians have arrived in the country, but already some 2,000 have left. “Some have already returned to Syria; others have settled in Sweden.”
His colleague, Aida Khachatryan, added that the Syrian Armenian families from the cities, especially Aleppo and Damascus, have had an easier time adapting to life to Yerevan.
“They are integrating better,” she said, by learning Russian — the lingua franca in the Caucasus. “Some are already employing their skills as goldsmiths, jewelers and shoemakers.” But most families are desperately poor, arriving in Armenia with nothing.
As the charity of the Armenian Catholic Church, Caritas Armenia is helping to settle these families in apartments, providing initial rent payments, food, sanitary supplies and mattresses. Resources are tight. I asked the seminarian, who has been ordained a subdeacon, how the church — which has almost no resources in Armenia and Georgia — can afford to support these families.
“Archbishop Minassian says it is in the hands of Jesus,” said Pierre, pointing upward. “The archbishop says we have to do this: ‘These are the children of the church!’ ” Apostolic, Catholic and Evangelical Armenians are welcome in this home of the archbishop; as we have seen throughout these weeks in the Caucasus, poverty does not discriminate and nor does the outreach of the local churches.
(photo: Michael La Civita)
This visit to the churches and peoples of Georgia and Armenia ended on a poignant note, visiting the monastic complex of Geghard. Founded in the fourth century by the apostle to the Armenians, St. Gregory the Illuminator, most of the structures — freestanding or hewn from the rock of the river gorge where it is located — date to the 12th century. Fog shrouded the gorge as we approached the site, a place of pilgrimage for Armenian Christians.
(photo: Michael La Civita)
As we entered the darkened churches, partially illuminated by the candles lighted by pilgrims, I thought about this extraordinary journey, and the extraordinary people I have had the privilege to meet.
My colleagues and I have much to think about as we work together to plan how to best serve these people, their initiatives and their faith. But one thing is clear: Never have I met such generous people. Regardless of their poverty — and the Armenian Catholic Church in particular needs support these days — I met people who gave from their heart.
“Love! Love is why we do these things!” Aida Khachatryan of Caritas exclaimed yesterday. She looked at her uncle, Father Grigor Mkrtchyan, who, while not knowing English, understood her absolutely.
This terrific parish priest, who accompanied us through much of the visit, nodded his head in agreement, looked at me and said simply: “Thank you.”
Never have such simple words meant so much.
(photo: Michael La Civita)
20 November 2013
Tags: Cultural Identity Armenia Caritas Caucasus U.S.C.C.B.
Khachkars adorn the shoreline of Armenia’s Lake Sevan. (photo: Michael La Civita)
Yesterday’s drive from the northwestern city of Gyumri to the Armenian capital of Yerevan was another stunner. At one point, overcome with the natural beauty of the country, I said to myself: “God has kissed this land, but why such hardship?” I am not sure of the answer even as I write these words 24 hours later.
We spent our last day in Gyumri visiting two centers operated by Caritas Armenia, the official charity of the Armenian Catholic Church. The Primary Health Care Center operates in a modest facility near the center of town. Nevertheless, its two doctors have 1,807 registered patients who typically visit the clinic five times a year. Most of the patients waiting yesterday were pensioners. Some of their typical health concerns, said one doctor, are diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and underactive thyroid conditions.
The bustling clinic offers its services free of charge, thanks to its many donors. This is particularly important to the shrinking population centers in the country’s northern districts. While the population and economy in and around Yerevan are growing (largely due to international investments from financial institutions and assistance from donor agencies, as well as foreign remittances), the urban centers of the north, such as Gyumri and Vanadzor, are losing people as unemployment in some areas reaches more than 50 percent.
The many rusted Soviet-era factories that dot the landscape — damaged by the 1988 earthquake and shuttered permanently a few years later with the dissolution of the Soviet Union — indicate a once heavily industrialized economy offering full employment. Not unlike the so-called Rust Belt in the United States, such as my hometown of McKeesport, near Pittsburgh, these areas now offer few opportunities to the young, who are moving out, leaving behind an elderly population dependent on services such as those offered by Caritas Armenia.
Today, said Aida Khachatryan of Caritas, young adults and youths have few opportunities, and wile away their days doing little. Many of the people in the north of Armenia have no idea what to do, she said, adding that the earthquake and its aftermath created conditions of dependency and apathy that many find hard to escape.
(photo: Michael La Civita)
After visiting the clinic, we headed to a Caritas-supported day care center for the elderly run by Flora Sargsyan — “the soul of Caritas Armenia,” said its director, Anahit Mkhoyan. We arrived just as the center’s members were arriving. Tchaikovsky played on the radio as the women and few men hung up their coats, wiped down the tables, made conversation and prepared their places to sit for coffee or tea.
Mrs. Sargsyan, whose grandfather served as a priest in Vanadzor, looked on her friends with the loving eye of a mother, and tended their souls much as her grandfather did.
“So many of these people are left alone, with no family, no grandchildren to help care for them,” she said, as two young college students arrived to help her. The volunteers spend not just an occasional hour or two, she said, but work in the center regularly — as many as five days a week. The spirit of the place was energizing, spurring impromptu poetry recitals, the singing of folk songs and even traditional dance. An octogenarian woman pulled my colleagues into the circle, and CNEWA’s Thomas Varghese impressed the ladies with dance moves influenced by his Indian heritage.
Leaving the center smiling from ear to ear, we left Gyumri and traveled east to the town of Vanadzor, only to be reminded again of the sorrow of Armenia’s past.
(photo: Michael La Civita)
As we climbed yet another mountain, we arrived at a bend of the road marked by a prominent monument and khachkars, or cross stone. There, Arevik Tumasyan of Caritas pointed to the “Gorge of Massacres,” a place where, during World War I, soldiers of the Ottoman Turkish Empire pushed tens of thousands of Armenian women and children into the gorge hundreds of feet below. While the subject of the Armenian Genocide has surfaced these days only in passing, this was our first encounter with it on Armenian soil. The site, much like the area’s emptied factories and villages, seemed ghostly, eerily quiet. We moved onward.
Arriving in Vanadzor, we spent some time at a child day care facility of Caritas Armenia: the Little Prince Center. The engaging team of social workers and psychologists met with us to discuss their demanding work with children, all of whom come from the poorest families in a community devastated by unemployment and “seasonal migration.” In addition, we met with a group of concerned parents and child care professionals who formed their own organization with the support of Caritas Armenia to provide tutoring and additional educational opportunities in conjunction with the Little Prince Program. Here, we found a child care program that cared for children’s emotional, psychological and spiritual well-being.
(photo: Michael La Civita)
Toward sundown, we traveled to Yerevan via Lake Sevan, a spectacular lake some 6,200 feet above sea level. There, on a peninsula that was once an island, we visited two ninth-century churches, the major one dedicated to the Mother of God and the smaller dedicated to the Holy Apostles. The churches appeared quiet, if not solitary in the strong wind and the setting sun.
The peninsula and its churches resembled the ancient monasteries of Ireland and, for a while, as I traced my fingers through the gorgeous khachkar that marked the holy ground, I felt I was again transported to someplace wholly fantastical. Yet, just below the ancient churches, I could hear the sound of young men playing basketball.
Indeed, just feet from these holy sanctuaries, seminarians from the Armenian Apostolic Church — Sevan is the site of a seminary for the church — could be heard, playing a New World sport.
(photo: Michael La Civita)
19 November 2013
Tags: Armenia Health Care Poor/Poverty Caring for the Elderly Caucasus
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)
18 November 2013
Tags: Children Cultural Identity Armenia Health Care Poor/Poverty
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)
15 November 2013
Tags: Cultural Identity Georgia Armenian Apostolic Church Architecture Church
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.
12 November 2013
Tags: Cultural Identity Poor/Poverty Village life Georgia Caucasus
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