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Staying Power

Georgia’s Armenian Catholics retain identity and faith

text and photographs by Molly Corso

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The dirt path leading to Ujmana separates two wheat fields and dozens and dozens of cows. A hamlet counting fewer than 60 families, Ujmana is one of 21 Armenian Catholic communities in Georgia that constitute a swath of Catholicism cutting through the predominately Orthodox nation. But even with few priests, high unemployment and limited resources, Armenian Catholics nurture their faith as an integral part of their identity and culture.

The difficulties of life in Georgia — a profoundly poor nation squeezed between Asia and Europe in the Caucasus — deeply affect its minority groups, such as the Armenian Catholic community. Ujmana’s parish church bears the scars. Bullet holes from Bolshevik guns mark its walls. The steeple is rusted, the paint is peeling and the sanctuary is lit by a single hanging light.

For Voshnik, a 42-year-old Armenian who married into the village (and who preferred not to give her last name), the tiny church represents everything good and powerful about her Catholic faith.

“Here I feel so good. My husband tells me, ‘you are from the city, and here you are struggling with the farm with the cows’ ... but here I feel very good. The mountains, the fields, give me strength,” she says.

“It has not been difficult to keep my faith. When I work, I see God. He walks with me.”

For Armenians like Voshnik, life has its challenges. A remote village some 16 miles from the largest town and 101 miles from Tbilisi, the nation’s capital, Ujmana has no running water or paved roads. Unemployment — the bane of the Georgian economy — is so high many families have moved to Russia in pursuit of jobs and an easier life.

“People go where they can live,” notes 75-year-old pensioner Joseph Khalajian, a former foreman on a construction crew who lives with his wife, Oseni, in the neighboring village of Eshtia.

“We have a lot of problems. We have two cows, we can barely take care of them. We can hardly feed ourselves, let alone the livestock,” he says.

Mr. Khalajian’s two sons have emigrated to Russia, along with nearly half of the village’s population.

“This was once a big village — 1,000 houses — now there are 360 houses. Of course, they went to Russia.”

Once a favored republic of the Soviet Union, Georgia stumbled into the 21st century after a decade of civil strife, making survival problematic, especially for its ethnic and religious minorities. Armenians have suffered disproportionately as they lack the lifeline of strong personal networks that mark Georgian society. Bad roads, fuel shortages, heavy snowfalls and a language barrier challenged relations with the Tbilisi-based government, isolating Armenian communities in the southern region of Samtskhe-Javakheti.

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