‘This is our mission’: Catholic archbishop brings aid to suffering Armenians

GiaArchbishopIMG_5984.jpg Archbishop Raphael Minassian with Gia Chacón, organizer of Operation Christmas for Armenia. Photos courtesy of For the Martyrs.

Archbishop Raphael Minassian is a man of action who has little time for the formalities of ecclesiastical life. 

Speaking to CNA from the Armenian capital, Yerevan, on Jan. 5, he said that he felt uncomfortable being addressed as "Your Excellency."

"I leave everything to divine providence because I'm a very simple clergy working for the Church," he explained. "'Excellency,' etc., are for other people, not for me. I am Fr. Raphael."

Fr. Raphael has served as the bishop of Armenian Catholics in Eastern Europe since 2011. He is responsible for an estimated 618,000 Armenian Rite Catholics in countries such as Ukraine, Georgia, Russia, and, of course, Armenia itself. 

He told CNA that as Armenia enters 2021 it is facing multiple crises that are driving many of its three million people into poverty.

He said: "Ex-Soviet countries, in general, are still unable to be self-sufficient. That's why the poor class of society is high. There is no system that could help them to be comfortable in their daily life. Plus, we have the coronavirus. Plus we had the war."

Fr. Raphael was referring to the recent conflict between Armenia and its neighbor Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. The area lies within Azerbaijan but is home to ethnic Armenians who refer to the territory as Artsakh. 

The war raged from Sept. 27 to Nov. 10 at the cost of more than 6,000 soldiers' lives. Ten of thousands of civilians fled to Yerevan, where they found refuge in schools, hotels, and private homes. 

"The whole situation is very complicated, very confusing for the people who emigrated from their country," said Fr. Raphael. "They have to find an apartment to live, and also work and to feed their family members." 

As president of Caritas Armenia, the 74-year-old archbishop is leading the Catholic outreach to the country's most desperate people.

"This is our mission as a Catholic Church, without putting in any difference between the people. We are looking only for the person in need," he said.

It's an important point because Catholics are a tiny minority in Armenia, numbering around 160,000.

Most citizens belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church, one of the six ancient Oriental Orthodox Churches and Armenia's national church.

Fr. Raphael emphasized that Caritas Armenia cares for orphans, refugees, and ill people with the help of benefactors from around the world. 

He noted that the group For the Martyrs, led by Gia Chacón, recently visited the country to deliver gifts to displaced children as part of its Operation Christmas for Armenia initiative.

He said that Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), as well as Aid to the Church in Need, were also making significant contributions.

More in Europe

But besides these organizations which have a long-term commitment to the country, the archbishop said there were others that would not remain in Armenia for long.

"At this moment, to tell you the truth, there are so many people coming from all over the world to help. They want to give it [aid] and then, after a few months, they want to leave. But the poor will remain poor," he said.

He urged potential U.S. donors to support the work of CRS and the USCCB in Armenia.  

"Through them, we can take care of the people with certain projects that could be very useful for them. Because I am not from that character to feed the people and then the second day they are still hungry," he said.

"What I'm trying to do is to find certain ways of helping the people to become self-sufficient."

Fr. Raphael said he hoped that those who achieved self-sufficiency would in turn support those who are less privileged, creating a virtuous cycle.

(Story continues below)

He added that Armenians were often reluctant to receive aid because they have a proud tradition of supporting themselves through entrepreneurship amid the upheavals of Armenian history.

Fr. Raphael was born to an Armenian family in Lebanon on Oct. 24, 1946. He was ordained in 1973 in Beirut as a priest of the Patriarchal Congregation of Bzommar, an Armenian Catholic religious congregation of priests founded in 1750. 

From 1990 to 2006, he served as a pastor in California, where he helped to create a foundation supporting humanitarian projects in Armenia. He also initiated the construction of St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Catholic Church in Glendale.

In 2005, he was appointed leader of the Armenian Catholic Patriarchal Exarchate of Jerusalem and Amman. His dynamism was evident there too. In 2009, he established perpetual Eucharistic adoration at the church marking the Fourth Station of the Way of the Cross on the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem. 

When Fr. Raphael was appointed to his present role as bishop of Armenian Catholics in Eastern Europe nine years ago, he decided to prioritize the Catholic Church's social and spiritual mission.

"As a Catholic Church, we are trying always to not get involved in the politics. Our assistance is more social and spiritual," he said, stressing that Catholics showed the utmost respect for members of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

"There is no difference in the proclamation of the faith between the Armenian Catholic Church and the Armenian Apostolic Church. They have the same creed. They have the same liturgy. They have the same prayer."

He added that, while some clergy emphasized the differences between the two communions, "we don't have any difficulty or any problematic situation working with everybody and assisting everybody." 

Meanwhile, Armenia faces an unsettled future. The country has a special place in Church history as it was the first to embrace Christianity as its state religion. But in the 21st century, Armenia appears isolated and vulnerable. 

On a map, the country looks like a small jigsaw piece inserted between the larger pieces of Azerbaijan, Iran, and Turkey. Only one of its four neighboring countries -- Georgia -- is majority Christian. Religious differences were a factor in the war in Nagorno-Karabakh. 

"You have to take into consideration that we are surrounded by non-Christian countries. So practically we don't have any window to run from it outside," Fr. Raphael said.

"So that also is a very hard situation for people who don't have any direct connection with the world."

Fr. Raphael explained that he had spent the past nine years seeking to build up Caritas Armenia because he wanted the organization to continue to help the people long after he is gone.

"As you know, the Catholic charity is the tool of the Church, in the social teaching and in the social life. So practically I concentrated everything in the Caritas," he said. 

"Do not let them be attached to the priest, because today I'm here, tomorrow I am going to die. But an organization, that will never die."

Our mission is the truth. Join us!

Your monthly donation will help our team continue reporting the truth, with fairness, integrity, and fidelity to Jesus Christ and his Church.