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Father Mikael Khachkalian

by Molly Corso

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Clinging to the cliffs of the Caucasus Mountains, the ancient city of Tbilisi serves as the cultural and political capital of Georgia, a transcontinental country that lies between Asia and Europe. Historically a buffer state between the Christian and Muslim worlds, Georgia is rich in diversity — culturally, ethnically and linguistically. Armenians, whose own ancient state borders Georgia to the south, have lived there for centuries, helping to fashion Tbilisi into a major cultural and intellectual hub since the 18th century.

The Rev. Mikael Khachkalian is one of five Catholic Armenian priests in Georgia, which has perhaps as many as 20,000 Armenian Catholics scattered in the capital and in the rural south. Father Khachkalian ministers to his people by both preaching the faith and preserving a culture. From celebrating the liturgy every morning in Armenian to Saturday language lessons with the youth, he is a full-time advocate for Armenian identity in Georgia.

After daily liturgies in the Armenian Catholic Center near downtown Tbilisi, the faithful explore the language of the liturgy as much as its meaning, sounding out unfamiliar Armenian words and practicing the proper pronunciation with the young priest and an assistant.

For Father Khachkalian, learning the language is paramount to understanding the faith, preserving the community’s Armenian Catholic identity and encouraging its growth for the future. But these evangelical efforts are facing stiff headwinds in a country experiencing a revival in Georgian nationalism and Georgian Orthodox Christianity.

Catholic Armenians have had a turbulent existence in Georgia: Most originally arrived after fleeing Ottoman Turkey to escape the massacres that killed some 1.5 million Armenians and Assyro-Chaldean Christians during the World War I era. Significant numbers of Catholic Armenians resettled in villages in Samtskhe-Javakheti, a rugged southern region of Georgia that borders Armenia and Turkey where earlier waves of Armenian exiles found refuge.

Eventually, many migrated to Tbilisi, long an important Armenian center, lured by the many opportunities offered there rather than the hard scrubland farming life in the villages.

During the Soviet period, especially Stalin’s Great Purge in the late 1930’s, the Communist authorities executed Georgia’s Armenian Catholic priests, leaving the faithful without the sacraments for more than 60 years. A full-time priest did not return to Tbilisi until 2002.

Every day, Father Khachkalian — the second Armenian Catholic priest assigned to the capital — sees the impact of the purge on his community. In the absence of a priest from their own tradition, Armenian Catholics have often sought out Catholic priests from the Latin Church, which did not experience the same level of persecution by the Communist authorities. Many Catholic Armenians in Tbilisi have since been Latinized, a “sad blow,” he says, to the Catholic Armenian community. Although the faith is the same, and the rites and liturgy maintain similarities, the culture and traditions underscore major differences and threaten to sever ties to the Armenian Catholic Church, which the priest believes is tantamount to losing ties with one’s ancestors.

Today, however, Father Khachkalian is working hard to return Armenian Catholics to their ancestral faith.

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