orn in Tbilisi, Father Khachkalian is no stranger to the challenges that burden Georgia’s minorities. About 8 percent of the Georgian population is ethnically Armenian — the largest minority group in Georgia — but Catholic Armenians are a minority within a minority. In the last census, taken in 2002, nearly the entire Armenian population in Georgia identified with the Armenian Apostolic Church, the preeminent church of the worldwide Armenian community. While there are no hard numbers, Father Khachkalian believes that 90 percent of self-identified Latin Catholics in Tbilisi are Catholic Armenians. Despite their numbers, however, there is no official Armenian Catholic church in Tbilisi — or anywhere in Georgia outside of the small village parishes in Samtskhe-Javakheti. In a recent report, the priest outlined the need for a separate Armenian Catholic church in Tbilisi. “The Armenian Catholic community in Tbilisi is going through difficult times,” he writes. “It’s divided and weakened.” He highlights that the parish center needs “major repairs” and is not big enough for the entire community to meet at one time and celebrate their faith. “It is also a problem for us to build a church. We have not seriously tried yet, but I think we will have problems,” he adds. While Georgian law nominally does not prohibit Armenian Catholics — or any other faith — from building a church, in reality, it is very controversial. “Discrimination — if you start to do something, then you feel it.” While Georgians pride themselves for their tolerance of religious and ethnic minorities, discrimination, Father Khachkalian says, remains a part of daily life — firstly due to
ethnicity, then, as a distant second, due to faith. “We have more problems due to the fact that we are Armenian, not that we are Catholic,” Father Khachkalian says. “You hear some insulting comments on the street,” he adds, noting if the Georgian media mentions Armenians, it is often in a negative light, or in relation to the Armenian separatist movement in the south of the country. Without a proper church to anchor his congregation, Father Khachkalian has carefully nurtured a revival of Armenian Catholicism and the Armenian language in
He ministers to his people both by preaching the faith and preserving the culture. parish house in Avlabari, a traditionally Armenian neighborhood in the historic district of Old Tbilisi, on the bank of the Kura River. From morning until night, Father Khachkalian witnesses to the faith and culture that make Armenian Catholics a unique part of the universal Catholic faith. During the week, that means morning liturgy in Armenian, followed by a meeting with the parishioners to discuss questions of language and ritual. On Friday evenings there is a special catechism for adults — a chance for those of older generations, who lived under Soviet state-sponsored atheism, to reconnect with their ancient roots.
On the weekends, Father Khachkalian celebrates the eucharistic liturgy, known as the Badarak in Armenian. The star of his mission, however, is the Saturday school for the youth — an inspired undertaking that seeks to energize young Armenian Georgians to learn and embrace their culture and faith. Armenian language lessons, catechism, choir, music and art — even a nascent English language study program — are available for the 100 or so Armenian youth who flock to the center.
n the Armenian Catholic Center, it is a typical Saturday scene: Following a robust service in Armenian, Father Khachkalian helps a group of teenagers wrestle Armenian verbs into submission in the kitchen, using a whiteboard propped up between the stove and the table. Meanwhile, his assistant leads art classes and Armenian dance practice in the center’s basement. Though CNEWA provides programmatic funding for the program, resources are limited — the center is largely a labor of love for the priest and his flock. With assistance from CNEWA’s partner, Caritas Georgia, the center was able to install a heating system so the children could also attend classes in the winter, and purchase musical instruments and other supplies for the arts program. The tiny center — which houses a one-room chapel as well as Father Khachkalian’s office — is ill-equipped to serve all the community’s needs. Nevertheless, the young generation is active and engaged. As they study the Catholic faith and the Armenian language, Father Khachkalian has his eyes on higher peaks, still — including technical training in marketable skills to provide the young students, many of whom hail from poor families, a chance at a brighter future.
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The official publication of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA)