Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Georgia's 'French' Keep Faith in Catholicism

The residents of a tiny mountain village in eastern Georgia are quietly building the region's first Catholic church.
By Giga Chikhladze

The alpine backdrop to the village of Khizabavra is composed of mountains from three countries - Georgia, Russia and Azerbaijan. But its inhabitants are known locally as "the French".


That is the name the 45 families of this community of Catholics, high in the hills of Georgia's eastern Lagodekhi region, have inherited from their medieval ancestors.


Until recently, this quiet backwater was visited only occasionally by tourists or biologists heading for the nearby Lagodekhi reserve. Khizabavra does not have a school or even a shop. To reach any of the benefits of civilisation, its inhabitants have to go down into the village below them in the plain.


However, since last spring the residents have been putting their village on the map by building their own Catholic church - the only one in the whole of eastern Georgia. Work has almost been completed on a red-brick basilica with a 15-metre bell-tower next to the old cemetary.


Catholic missionaries began travelling to Georgia, an overwhelmingly Orthodox country, in the 13th century. Most of them were French, leading Georgian villagers to call conversion to Catholicism "Francification". Even today, their modern descendants are dubbed "the French".


The medieval missionaries promised that the Catholic Church would defend its new flock against attacks by the Turks, and succeeded in converting whole villages in Georgia and Armenia. The historian Ilya Tabagua writes that until the year 1600, Georgia's Catholics had their own bishop in Tbilisi who was appointed directly by the Pope.


Nowadays there are only an estimated 14,000 "French" in Georgia, comprised of most of the country's different nationalities, and just 14 churches for them to worship in. Of that number, some have been closed while others have been converted to Orthodox places of worship. The modern-day Catholic diocese of Georgia is fighting the government in the courts for the right to take back one such church in Kutaisi.


"It's impossible to remain indifferent when former Catholic churches are rebuilt with a new Orthodox façade, as happened recently in Gori," said Manana Andriadze, press secretary of the Catholic diocese in Tbilisi.


"And I believe we will win justice in Kutaisi, where the Catholic building was given over to the Georgian Orthodox patriarchate,"


This court case is a mild dispute compared to the battles being fought by Protestant churches and Jehovah's Witnesses in Georgia. But a recently signed concordat between the Georgian state and its Orthodox Church confirms that the Catholics, in common with other Christian denominations, have a de facto secondary status in the country. (See CRS No. 151).


The people of Khizabavra are now enjoying the benefit of this. "I spent almost a whole year collecting the documents to receive permission to build the church," said Tristan Kobakhidze, who is in charge of the construction project.


"We were expecting resistance from the Patriarchate, but it was not the church which hampered us - rather it was the regional authorities, who demanded a huge quantity of certificates from various authorities before we could start work."


The project is now moving ahead at full speed. Polish priest Father Adam brings money raised for the church in the Tbilisi diocese to Khizabavra. While he is there, he conducts services in the yard of a house and when the service is over he lays bricks and pours cement with everyone else.


"A church should be built for centuries ahead," volunteer builder Gabriel told IWPR proudly. "We are using extra-tough bricks, which were made to order. The main architect of Kakheti (Eastern Georgia) was amazed by the quality of our building materials when he inspected the site."


The Khizabavra church-building project is just one part of a plan by the Catholic Church in Georgia to revive its fortunes. The church recently sent a Georgian to train in Poland to become a priest. Up until now, all priests have been visiting Poles or Italians.


The Orthodox Church is reserved in its judgement on the Catholic revival. "We can definitely talk of Catholic expansion," said Zurab Tskhovrebadze of the patriarchate press centre. But he went on to say that both Catholics and Orthodox were "united by their concern at the problem of sects - Jehovah's Witnesses, Baptists and so on."


In the Lagodekhi region, relations between Orthodox and their "French" neighbours are much more harmonious than in the capital. This is partly due to a shared suspicion of recent religious incomers to Georgia, and because local people have always counted their spiritual differences as minimal.


"Real Christians ought to stick together despite their differences. We have nothing in common with these other sects," local school teacher David Otarishvili told IWPR.


Until recently the villagers of Khizabavra and three other small hamlets used to go and pray in the region's only Orthodox church, and found that the locals paid little attention to the fact that their neighbours were crossing themselves slightly differently or praying to different saints.


Now, an Orthodox church is also under construction in Khizabavra's neighbouring village, under the guidance of the same architect. "When we finish our church, we will go and help finish building the Orthodox one," said Tristan Kobakhidze.


Giga Chikhladze is a freelance journalist based in Tbilisi