Frescos in the interior of Surb Gevorg Church in Tbilisi (photo Aram Arkun)

Georgian-Armenian Bishop Concerned About Loss of Identity, Unity

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TBILISI/WATERTOWN — Bishop Kirakos Davtyan of the Diocese of the Georgian Armenians, based in Tbilisi, declared in a recent interview giving an overview of the current state of the Georgian-Armenian population, “The major issues of the Georgian Armenian community at present are unity and the preservation of Armenian identity.”

Bishop Kirakos Davtyan, center

He said, “Today, taking into consideration the ease of [various] pleasures, many forget — and this is not only about our Armenians but about our youth in general — their traditions and the importance of family sanctity and the church in their lives. They grow distant from the Armenian identity and church. Today, as it is possible to say about all youth in Georgia, this is the chief problem for our youth.”

The bishop, 41, is a native of Tbilisi who, after graduating a local secondary school, studied at the Gevorgian Theological Seminary of Echmiadzin in Armenia. In 2006, after being ordained a celibate priest, he served in a variety of positions, in Georgia, Australia, Russia and Armenia, before returning to the Georgian diocese as locum tenens in 2019 and then Primate in 2022. He was ordained a bishop in October 2023.

Population

According to the last Georgian census, in 2014, there were 53,409 Armenians in Tbilisi and 168,100 in all of Georgia, making them the second largest ethnic minority after Azerbaijanis. However, Bishop Davtyan declared that these official figures were low, as many cannot participate in the census because their employment is outside the country. He said that there were approximately 250,000 Armenians in the country, the majority living in the Javakhk region, and the rest in the regions of Tbilisi, Batumi, Ajaria and Marneuli. In Tbilisi, he said that though officially there are 38,000 members registered to the Armenian Church, there are about 70,000 Armenians.

St. Gevorg Church, where the headquarters of the Diocese of the Georgian Armenians is located, is at Meydan Square at the foot of Narikala Fortress (photo Aram Arkun)

The majority of the Armenian men in the Javakhk region are in Russia during much of the year in order to earn their livelihoods and support their families back home. There is a smaller percentage of Armenians who do this in Tbilisi.

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The majority of the Armenians of Georgia came to the country after the Armenian Genocide from nearly all the regions of Western Armenia, Bishop Davtyan said, though there are a good number of natives, especially in Tbilisi. He noted that the Armenian population of Georgia has decreased greatly compared to the Soviet period, when there were as many as half a million Armenians. From Tiflis, Davtyan said, Armenians tend to emigrate more to Europe whereas from Javakhk and Batumi, they tend to relocate to Russia. Georgian Armenians also have emigrated to many other places in the West, like the US, France, United Kingdom, Netherlands, and Canada, he added.

St. Gevorg Church of Echmiadzin, also called St. Ejmiatsin Church (photo Aram Arkun)

In the Marneuli region, which is in southeastern Georgia and borders both Azerbaijan and Armenia, Azeri and Armenian villages are next to each other. Bishop Davtyan said that there are villages sometimes where the population is half Armenian and half Azeri. In some of these villages, there is only one school, which is Armenian, so the Azeri children have to attend this school. He said, “Relations there are normal. There have been, of course, some tensions during the Artsakh war but these did not turn into big fights or enmity. There have been some incidents on both sides, but they have not expanded into greater clashes.”

He also noted that no Artsakh Armenians have come to Georgia after the recent events.

Bishop Davtyan said that Armenian Catholics live primarily in the Javakhk and Akhaltskha areas, and that he has very good, warm relations with their clergy. He added that there are some Protestant Armenian churches in Georgia with Armenian leadership, but their numbers are very small. There is one in Tbilisi and one in Javakhk.

Javakhk

Unlike the rest of Georgia, Bishop Davtyan said that in Javakhk (Javakheti in Georgian), a region in southern Georgia next to the Armenian border, where Armenians constitute the ethnic majority, 100 percent of the population speaks Armenian and has studied in Armenian-language schools. There are Armenian schools in every village there, and the whole curriculum is in Armenian. The Georgian language and history are also taught.

While the strong Armenian cultural identity in Javakhk is enviable, it also creates a problem. Davtyan said, “Although being a part of Georgia, and Georgian citizens, the Javakhk Armenians do not speak Georgian. This creates issues with the regime. Imagine that a Javakhk deputy in the Georgian Parliament cannot speak Georgian.”

This has led to campaigns by the Georgian government to encourage learning Georgian, he continued, but there is a second, related issue. If the teacher of Georgian in a Javakhk school was himself born in Javakhk and does not know Georgian well, he cannot teach it well to the students. Davtyan said, “The state must secure good Georgian teachers. I always say this when speaking with the government. There are retraining issues. When new teachers are sent to work for a certain amount of time there [to Javakhk], let it be for one or two years, they should be Georgian, so that they can speak Georgian and the student when communicating with his teacher is forced to learn Georgian.”

Educational and Cultural Activity

The Armenian Church plays an important cultural as well as religious role in Georgia. Bishop Davtyan pointed to the loss of identity taking place there, and said, “This is why we attempt more to attract to the church through our activities and our offices, so youth have the opportunity to serve church and through their service and work spread the word to their coevals, preaching church, family, and traditions. Today our concern is to maintain traditions.”

One issue, he said, is simply that due to the decrease in the Georgian-Armenian population after independence, many intellectuals and artists now live and create abroad, especially in Armenia.

Around half of the Georgian Armenians today speak Armenian, though they do not know how to read and write. Only a small number in Tbilisi can read and write as well as speak Armenian. Most graduated Russian or Georgian-language schools. There are only two Armenian schools in Tbilisi, the bishop said, though 20 years ago there were 11.

All schools in Georgia are state-run, including the Armenian ones and there are no Armenian universities in Georgia. Those who know the Georgian language better tend go to various universities in Tbilisi, while those who want to continue their education in Armenian go to Armenia. As Bishop Davtyan declared, “Thank God, Armenia is not very distant.”

Bishop Davtyan said that in the cities where there are Armenian churches, next to each church is what in the US we would call Saturday or Sunday schools. They are primarily for people who have not attended Armenian schools but want to learn Armenian and their history and literature. In Georgia they are called cultural centers.

Hayartun Armenian cultural center, next to St. Ejmiatsin Church (photo Aram Arkun)

Davtyan said, “Everywhere in our churches throughout Georgia we teach the Armenian language and literature. We have placed the emphasis more on culture, so that their song, dance, instruments, traditional clothing, and Armenian cuisine (especially for future brides) are studied. There are Armenian festivals concerning different Armenian foods which are conducted throughout Georgia. For example, recently we did the harissa festival during Poon Paregentan [“Day of Good Living” feast before the fast of Lent]. We have a dolma festival. We have a ghapama [stuffed, baked pumpkin] festival [during michink, the median day (halfway point) of Lent].”

He explained who the target audience for these festivals is: “These are first of all for our people, so that they learn, especially the young generation, about what historical foods we have, but also, we invite our friend nationalities, whoever wants to come or participate can come. There are also families which want to learn how to make these Armenian dishes, and they participate in the festivals afterwards.”

There are a variety of Armenian cultural organizations in Georgia. Some of them are affiliated with the Diocese and some are not, but most seem to work with it. The Vernatun Union of Armenian Writers of Georgia, for example, cooperates closely with the church. The Armenian Painters Union, Armenian Doctors Union and many other such associations, which often started in the Soviet era, work under the patronage of the Diocese. The Diocese also runs the Hovhannes Tumanyan House-Museum in Tbilisi.

The Petros Atamian Tbilisi State Armenian Drama Theater, founded in the mid-19th century, is being renovated by the Georgian state, Davtyan said, and will reopen this year by the summer or fall at the latest. Internal technical issues like lighting are now being completed. The drama group itself continues its activities in different parts of Georgia. It has performed several times in the Shota Rustaveli central theater of Tbilisi and the Griboedov Theater, as well in Armenia. The majority of its presentations, Davtyan continued, are in the Armenian language, though sometimes the works of new authors of Tbilisi and Georgia use a mixture of Georgian and Armenian words.

There are two Armenian-language newspapers published in Georgia, and several other periodicals. The Republic of Georgia supports the “official” weekly newspaper called Vrastan [Georgia]. Bishop Davtyan observed that there is a general press body belonging to the state Ministry of Culture which oversees its finances as well as that of other newspapers. He said, “It is a completely Armenian newspaper, all written in Armenian, and dealing with Georgian-Armenian issues as well as Armenia. It is possible to say that it is a fully independent newspaper. It has no problem on writing on any issue connected with Armenia and the Armenians.” There is also Arevik, a children’s monthly written in the Armenian language, and the Georgian-Armenian Writers Union publishes a yearbook.

There is an active non-governmental organization, Vrastani Hay Hamaynk [The Armenian Community of Georgia], which officially was founded in 2008 in Tbilisi but with roots in an earlier organization dating from 2004. Bishop Davtyan said that it publishes its own Armenian-language newspaper, Miutyun [Union], which also deals with Armenian issues, concerning Georgia, Armenia and the diaspora. The organization itself carries out various youth and cultural activities. According to its website, its goals are to form an organized and strong community to protect its collective rights, help the Georgian state prosper, and promote friendly and mutually beneficial relations between Georgia and Armenia.

Davtyan said that there are no newspapers in the Georgian language, but there is a Russian-language newspaper concerning minorities living in Georgia, including Armenians, called Kavkaski Vestnik [Caucasian Bulletin]. He said that there are some Armenians among its editors, along with others. There are also various Internet-based news sites for Georgian Armenians.

Bishop Davtyan pointed out that a number of translations of books of Armenian authors into Georgian have been published recently. At present, there is a project to translate the David of Sasun epic into Georgian. He said, “We do all this not for our Armenians to read and understand but to introduce our Armenian [heritage] to Georgians.”

The various schools get textbooks in the Armenian language from Armenia, and teaching of the Armenian language, Davtyan said, is done simply in Armenian. Armenian history and literature at the various cultural centers are usually taught in the Russian or Georgian languages, depending on what is appropriate for the current group of students. Teachers prepare their lectures without a concrete textbook, translating whatever is necessary.

Davtyan noted one important factor which helps in preserving Armenian identity in Georgia. He said, “Maintaining ties with Armenia is not difficult for the youth. Those who desire it can keep relations with Armenia. Youth groups on different occasions always visit Armenia, while various types of groups come here from Armenia….We are adjoining [countries] and can visit Armenia at any time. What is important is the desire.”

Disputes over Control of Churches and Cemeteries

There are only two working Armenian churches today in Tbilisi, St. Echmiadzin and St. Gevorg, which is where the headquarters of the Diocese of the Armenian Church of Georgia is located (many know of it because it is where the tombstone of the famous minstrel Sayat Nova is located).

There were many more Armenian churches in Tbilisi prior to the Soviet period, as the population of the city was majority Armenian. During the Soviet period, the government confiscated most church edifices, Armenian and Georgian, and some were destroyed. At the end of the Soviet period, churches began to be restored to their original owners, but Georgian nationalism led to attempts to take over originally Armenian churches.

The 18th-century Holy Mother of God Church of Bethlehem (Surp Asdvadzadzin) was taken over by the Georgian Orthodox Church in 1994 (photo Aram Arkun)

The return to Armenians of historically Armenian churches that were made Georgian Orthodox at the end of the Soviet period, Bishop Davtyan said, will be a difficult thing to achieve. However, there are churches which are called contested. Their status has been frozen by the state. Bishop Davtyan said that their status appears more resolvable at present and the Armenian Church continues to attempt to get them returned.

Frescos by Hovnatan Hovnatanian adorn the deteriorating interior of the 16th century Surb Astvatsatsin Norashen Church in Tbilisi, July 2023, which is still in a frozen status, though its return is requested by the Armenian Diocese (photo Aram Arkun)

He said, “We on our part each time, on every appropriate occasion, and through letters and other suitable methods, make reminders about these churches that we as the Armenian community, the Armenian Church, await their return.”

An exterior view of Surb Astvatsatsin Norashen Church in Tbilisi, July 2023 (photo Aram Arkun)

Some of the contested churches whose status is frozen are in a physically precarious state, requiring renovations. For example, Bishop Davtyan said, “As far as the Shamkhoretsots Karmir Avetaran [Red Gospel] Church is concerned, this is a half-ruined church. Great efforts are being carried out so that we can, at least in the area adjoining that church, conserve it until there is a decision about transferal, and at that time we can restore it.” Nearby construction projects at present endanger the state of the remaining parts of this church.

The old and extremely large Armenian cemetery of Tbilisi was taken over by the Georgian Church which erected a gigantic new cathedral, the Holy Trinity Cathedral, commonly known as Sameba, on its territory between 1995 and 2004. Only a small portion of the Armenian cemetery remains at Khojavank (or Khojivank). Also known as the Armenian Pantheon, this is where many famous Armenian intellectuals such as the 19th century writers Raffi (Hakob Melik-Hakobian), Grigor Artsruni, and Hovhaness Tumanyan are buried.

A view of the Armenian Pantheon, with the novelist Raffi’s tombstone in the center (photo Aram Arkun)

Bishop Davtyan said, “At this time, the pantheon is being renovated and this will be completed by next summer.” He noted that when stones with Armenian inscriptions that were not tombstones were found during renovations of various parts of the city, such as at a bridge or school, they were brought to the pantheon, along with a few gravestones.

Stones with Armenian inscriptions temporarily stored at the Pantheon (photo Aram Arkun)

Message for the World’s Armenians

Bishop Davtyan concluded his interview with a message for all Armenians. He said, “I would like all Armenians to be more united at this time. I would like Armenians to stay at each other’s sides, not divided into various political, and public associations, like Dashnak or Hnchak, but stay Armenian… At this moment, when the homeland is facing such a difficult situation, we outside, in Georgia as the near diaspora, and you there in the distant diaspora, must be much more united.”

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