Here a draft note on a booklet I have just read. Please forgive the spelling of the regio. I shall correct it when I write this up for Groong.
The future of Armenians in Georgia
Download and read ‘Issues Confronting Armenians in Tchavakhk’ by Arisdages Simavoryan and Vahram Hovyan (96pp, 2009, Yerevan). Published by the Noravank Foundation, an think-tank devoted to issues of Armenian national development and national security, it is, with focus on Armenian Roman Catholics, an examination of the condition of Armenian communities in Tchavakhk that lies today within Georgian jurisdiction. The Foundation, incidentally takes its name from an eminent medieval educational institution, whose surviving grounds offer a stunning architectural experience enhanced by its setting amid wildly beautiful mountain heights.
From the outset one appreciates a healthy affirmation that religious affiliation does not determine nationality, even among Armenians where their Apostolic Church has occupied a central position in historical and national life. The whole study is informed by recognition that to be Armenian does not require affiliation to the Apostolic Church. Armenian Catholics in Tchavakhk and elsewhere in Georgia confront the very same issues that trouble all their compatriots irrespective of faith or politics. Living cheek by jowl with their non-Catholic compatriots when unable to finance, build or maintain their own churches, community centres, clubs and schools all readily share resources across denominational borders.
Armenian Catholics write the authors ‘are wholly drawn into the realities of Armenian life and are active participants in pan-Armenian initiatives.’ Like other Armenians within Georgian jurisdiction they also suffer chauvinist oppression and the denial of national democratic rights. They too are victims of attempts to curtail the use of Armenian, to terminate their allegiance to the Armenian Apostolic or Catholic Church and to undermine their communities through economic, social and political discrimination.
Armenian Catholics feel the same pressure to Georgianise their Armenian names and resent the Georgian state’s refusal to recognise Armenian Churches, Catholic or Apostolic, as independent institutions. They too are victims of the state’s cynical redrawing of provincial boundaries so as to transform Armenian majorities into minorities. In their resistance Armenian Catholics are an indivisible component of the Armenian community as a whole, similarly and fraudulently charged by the Georgian media with being separatists, extremist nationalists or agents of foreign states.
However despite resistance, economic hardship and systematic discrimination has prompted mass emigration threatening the future of Armenian communities in the region. Data on Armenian Catholic villages suggests the pan-Armenian picture. In 1991 the village of Turtzough had an Armenian Catholic population of 2550. Ten years later the figure had fallen to 230. In the same period Varevan lost half its population dropping from 820 to 320. Khoulkoumou had 305 Armenian Catholic families in 1987. Today there are less than 150. If the trend continues Georgian chauvinism will have succeed in ethnically cleansing the region of all Armenians.
Offering some historical context Georgian chauvinist attacks are traced back to the emergence of modern Georgian nationalism in the mid-19th. Then and since, with the WWI era, the Soviet and now post Soviet age it has with the Georgian Church as an Georgian Church as active partner, it has mounted repeated, often violent, campaigns of assimilation, religious conversion and ethnic cleansing in particular targeting Catholic Armenians, claiming them as Georgians assimilated into Armenian communities. These and counter claims would be funny were they not so widespread and redolent of dangerous sectarianism. Turks also claim Armenian Catholics as ethnic Turks and even some Armenians reject them as part Turkish or Kurdish.
In the informative opening chapter the authors also sketch the tortuous journey of Tchavakhk’s Armenian Catholic ancestors from occupied western Armenia, all seeking to escape Ottoman rule. The memory of these historic origins is retained among communities as well as in local traditions and customs. Why Armenians in the deep of their historic homeland converted to Catholicism is not considered in detail, but it is suggested that this may have been the result of a belief that belonging to a European Church could offer them greater protection from Ottoman barbarism.
As conclusion it is worth reiterating and underlining in bold the positive pan-Armenian approach that threads through booklet. Beyond religion and denomination it suggests a prospect of national unity around everyday social, economic and cultural issues. It is an approach that can and should be extended to the often vitriolic and intolerant discussion about the national identity of Armenians forced converts to Islam. Evidently ‘Armenian Muslims’ need not be a contradiction in terms. The essence of Armenian nationality is not and should never be equated solely with allegiance to the Armenian Apostolic Church.
In this connection the authors make an observation that prompts further thought. Noting the speed with which Armenian converts to other Christian denominations were assimilated they add that among Armenians forced to convert to Islam the memory of their Armenian origins may endure longer for having been forced upon them with such brutality. It will endure further for the memory and remembrance of family, relatives, friends and local villagers slaughtered, kidnapped, abused or violated during the period of the Genocide.
Thanks to the Noravank Foundation for encouraging thought to follow such a path. It inspires one to turn also to their other publications all of which are available on line with its books in easily downloadable PDF format.
11 December 2010
Armenian Catholics in Javakhk
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