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A Letter From Georgia

by Benyamin Beth Yadgar

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Editors’ note: The author of this article pastors the Assyro-Chaldean community in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, which is geographically in Europe, yet lies only 382 miles from Mosul in northern Iraq. In addition to caring for the souls of his parish, Chorbishop Benyamin Beth Yadgar serves as president of Caritas Georgia, the charity of the Armenian, Chaldean and Roman Catholic churches and a major partner of CNEWA.

The Assyro-Chaldean Christians of historical Mesopotamia — modern Iran, Iraq and Turkey — have been used as pawns in political games by powerful states for centuries. But nothing prepared us for the tragedy of World War I, which decimated our people and our churches: the Church of the East, the Syriac Catholic and Orthodox churches, and my own Chaldean Catholic Church.

We were dispersed, as many of our people fled to other corners of the world. The numbers tell the story. According to the Soviet census of 1939, there were some 20,000 Assyro-Chaldeans, most of them postwar refugees, living in what is now the Republic of Georgia. In 1990, that figure fell to 7,000. According to the census of 2001, only 3,000 people identified themselves as Assyrian or Chaldean.

It was into this difficult situation that I arrived in 1995, tasked with beginning an Assyro-Chaldean Catholic mission in the Georgian capital city of Tbilisi. I was entering a world of tremendous challenges.

The view from my window of the airport below as I first approached Tbilisi startled me. It was totally dark. The landing strip was barely illuminated. It looked like a yawning abyss, gloomy and bleak. The picture didn’t get any brighter as I made my way through the city.

Dilapidated houses in the central square still preserved traces of a brutal civil war, with bullet holes that pockmarked the walls. The roads had collapsed. Armed guards stood at nearly all the crossroads. The city was living up to its reputation as a place of hardship, fear and misery. It seemed as if time had frozen.

I stayed at the home of a parishioner, Genadi Ivanov, who made me feel most welcome. The following day, I met and spoke with Assyrians. My first impressions of the city — of the despair and the sense of defeat — only became worse. People were absolutely exhausted by endless daily, social and political problems. Everyday living was a struggle. Water and heat were scarce; the electricity was always failing. We tried to take some comfort from the Gospel of St. Luke: “One does not live by bread alone.” The mission of talking with people about spiritual food, while they strived hard to find daily bread, was not easy.

But in the midst of so much strife, I found inspiration from those who came before us — namely our dear grandmothers and grandfathers who attended church in any weather, under any circumstances, with great love and enthusiasm. Their devotion was so great!

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