Monsignor José Avelino BETTENCOURT: "We share two millennia of friendship"

26.11.2022 (Caucasian Journal) It is a special honour today for Caucasian Journal to welcome His Excellency the Most Reverend Monsignor José Avelino BETTENCOURT, the Apostolic Nuncio (Ambassador of Vatican) to Armenia and Georgia. 

ქართულად:  Read the Georgian version here.
 Հայերեն. Read the Armenian version here.

Alexander KAFFKA, editor-in-chief of CJ: Your Excellency, welcome to Caucasian Journal, and thank you for this opportunity. You have been working in Tbilisi for quite some time already, and your Embassy covers both Armenia and Georgia. In addition, you are the doyen of diplomatic corps in Georgia. This sounds like a huge amount of responsibilities. My first question is what’s your overall feeling about your work now? Do you have to travel much across the Caucasus, and what’s your impression about our part of the world?

José A. BETTENCOURT:  Thank you for your invitation to this interview.  I came to the South Caucasus in the footsteps of my predecessors with the hope to build upon the good that has been traced out as well as meet today’s realities.

The Holy See was among the first states to recognize the independence of each of the South Caucasus states and to establish diplomatic relations.  This year we celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of diplomatic relations. The Holy See was also the tenth state to open a diplomatic mission in Tbilisi.  I like to keep the perspective that we share two millennia of friendship. 

In Georgia, the Apostolic Nuncio is the Dean of the Diplomatic Corps “in iure” as of the presentation of the Letters of Credence.  Through this gesture Georgia wished to recognize and honour the Holy See’s distinct diplomatic role in the world. Just as in other countries around the world, the Dean is invited to speak on behalf of the diplomatic corps and represent it on certain occasions.
Each of the countries of the South Caucasus is unique and very interesting from so many perspectives - historical, cultural, religious, political, natural beauty and its human qualities, to name but a few.  I completely embraced the “mission” afforded me here.  Over the years I have had the chance to travel throughout the South Caucasus, even to remote settlements, and meet a broad spectrum of people from all walks of life.  

My “work” is not “work”.  It is who I am. Hence, I love what I do.  Over the years in the South Caucasus, I have developed a personal rapport with so many and feel personally committed to contributing in a positive way. The South Caucasus has its own sets of challenges but that does not take away from the great prospectives and possibilities. My impressions are truly positive.

AK:  I suppose that during several years as a nuncio in Georgia and Armenia you have seen many things that are not usually in the focus of an “ordinary” diplomat. I mean places that have spiritual significance, special events or persons, etc. Can you share some of the most interesting memories of that type? 

JAB: There are experiences from the South Caucasus that will stay with me.  Of course, a diplomat of the Holy See is an ecclesiastic and perhaps a certain rapport develops in certain sectors of society.  I have been impressed with the antiquity of these nations and with preserved artifacts that point to their ancient civilizations.  I am particularly impressed with Christian artifacts dating from the III and IV centuries.  I have met people that have made their mark on the world stage.  In particular I think of a skilled craftsman that has given his life to revive the ancient Georgian art of “cloisonné enamel” and serves a national institution.  I have been impressed with the polyphony and the dedication of individuals in preserving and promoting its uniqueness on world stages.  I have met individuals who have used their personal means for extraordinary creative work of philanthropy and for honouring others’ humanitarian work throughout the world.  I have visited with foundations that perpetuate the virtuous visions of their founders to assist so many sectors of society. The elegance and meaning of the written scripts as well as their preservation and presentation will remain engraved in my mind.  In the South Caucasus I am always impressed with the profound sense of human dignity evident in its song and dance.  Clearly, I could go on and on….

AK:  I think it’s very important to touch the fundamental basics of the Holy See’s diplomacy and your core tasks. You mentioned that it is based on promoting "human dignity". Can you perhaps start by elaborating this point? 

“Human dignity” is much more encompassing than “rights”. “Human dignity” speaks of an innate “right” that is God-given and not something that is “bestowed by humans”.

JAB:  One might say that the Holy See’s diplomacy is a “school of humanity”, in the sense that it becomes part of the local reality in each state without losing sight of the broader and timely perspective of humanity.

The Holy See’s diplomats do not represent economic, political nor geostrategic interests.  Rather these diplomats represent impartial interests as understood from the prism of the Christian tradition. 

In our view, to speak of “human dignity” is much more encompassing than to speak of “rights”. “Human dignity” speaks of an innate “right” that is God given and not something that is “bestowed by humans”.

In this sense, over the centuries the Catholic Church has promoted its social teaching:  1) the right to life, respect for the human person and the dignity proper of the human person; 2) peace, peaceful cohabitation amongst peoples and support for peace initiatives; 3) the right to participate in the political destiny of one’s nation in the form of government the people choose for themselves; 4) respect for the international order.  In brief, these are some of the general guiding lines of the Holy See’s diplomacy. Of course, the “chief diplomat” of the Holy See is the Pope himself, and the Apostolic Nuncio meets with the Pontiff regularly.

AK:  Can you name any examples to illustrate how the Vatican’s policy is being implemented abroad, and particularly in our region? 

JAB: I think you will agree that Pope Francis has had a great deal of influence on bringing attention to the plight of refugees, migrants, poor and the displaced who make up a far too large part of the human family of our planet.  He appeals for respect for our planet and its environment and the Holy See is a participant at the COPS meetings including the recent COPS 27 meeting in Egypt.  The Pontiff has been very vocal in his appeals for dialogue and peace in the war in Ukraine, as well as here in the Nagorno – Karabakh war, to name merely a couple of cases.  

The Apostolic Nuncio Visvaldas Kulbokas was one of the few ambassadors who remained in Kiev during the war and placed himself and his office at the service of relieving the devastating humanitarian situation.   The Holy See’s Apostolic Nuncio Claudio Gugerotti together with Caritas were active during the war in the Tskhinvali Region in 2008 and assisted in alleviating the humanitarian crisis there.  Archbishop Gugerotti was just appointed by Pope Francis as Prefect of the Dicastery for Oriental Churches in the Vatican – “government minister”, this past month of November 2022.

Pontifical diplomacy gives voice on the world stage to those who have no voice, the marginalized and persecuted such as for example in the current crisis in Myanmar, El Salvador, Central African Republic, to name a few.  

We believe that human dignity or human rights begin with the freedom of belief and freedom of conscience and that from that right stems all other rights.  The Roman Pontiff has been a voice for freedom of belief and conscience. 

Through the Higher Committee of Human Fraternity, an ongoing gathering of representatives from different religions, Pope Francis has invested himself in fostering relations with the world-wide global family.  

We could bring many more examples to the discussion, but the point that I wish to make is that the Holy See’s diplomacy acting “super partes” [non-partisan - CJ]  is committed to higher values and is completely engaged in the issues of our world.

AK:  Perhaps there are cases – or projects of your mission – that you consider worth mentioning? For example, I know that you supporting university education, inter-confessional dialogue, etc. 

JAB: I would like to begin by recognizing the extraordinary work in the social, academic, health, and other sectors that is accomplished daily in Georgia by the Georgian Orthodox Church and in Armenia by the Armenian Apostolic Church, not to mention government and private institutions.  There are extraordinary ecclesiastics, religious and faithful in each of these Churches that have done extraordinarily generous and admirable daily work that often receives little recognition by the wider community.  The Catholic Church works along side these institutions and individuals.

In the South Caucuses the Catholic Church’s Caritas is very active. Caritas Georgia and Armenian Caritas are part of the umbrella organization Caritas International that is a confederation of 162 national caritas, operating in 200 countries. Its president is Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle with offices in the Vatican.   Caritas works in a very quiet and effective way, with low bureaucracy and high efficiency, through a small network of staff and an army of generous volunteers of all faiths and races. They work in the health and social outreach sectors, assisting “shut-ins”, providing soup kitchens, drop-in centers, shelters, refugee support, youth assistance, among others, bringing aid to far flung communities in the South Caucasus.  Again, the Catholic Church is working along side other institutions in each country in order to better serve the needs.

On the local level, the Catholic Church’s Camilian Religious Order administrates a hospital in Ashotsk on the border between Georgia and Armenia. They have maintained it since the horrible earthquake of 1988.  The Catholic Church also runs clinics in Georgia often offering assistance to those who cannot afford health care and assisting physically challenged individuals in places where essential services are harder to come by.  

The Sisters of Charity (Mother Theresa of Calcutta) have four houses in the region where they lovingly and gratuitously look after severely physically challenged orphans and displaced individuals. 

Many more religious orders are present such as the Armenian Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, the Sisters of St. Nino, the Sisters of St. Joseph, the Benedictine Sisters, the Salesian Sisters, the Franciscans and the Mekhitarists Order with its important contributions to Armenian culture, to name a few.

The Sulkhan-Saba University in Tbilisi celebrated 20 years of its founding and is connected to numerous Catholic Universities around the world. Scholarships have been made available for academic studies both here and abroad.  The Catholic Salesian Religious Order is presently building a new educational facility complex in Tbilisi for skills training to help youth find skilled jobs in the service sectors.  

We support numerous projects in various sectors from social outreach to cultural programs, from health care to academic excellence and ecumenical dialogue, without discriminating against race nor religion.  Thanks to generous, inspired and committed “armies of volunteers”, working alongside the admirable work accomplished through many other individuals and institutions in each country, to make a small difference in people’s lives notwithstanding creed or race. 

The Catholic Church is not here to proselytize anyone. We are here to collaborate and serve. I would like to foster greater collaboration and networking between churches and institutions in order to better meet the needs. Each of us can “tap” into “grass roots” resources, human, material or logistic, to encourage collaboration and better serve. I am certain that most would agree to see this promoted and it would be a real witness to Christianity.

Such a great occasion occurred last month of June when the Georgian Orthodox Church, the Government of Georgia and the Holy See came together to organize a historical concert in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican performed by the Georgian Orthodox Patriarchal Choir and the Sistine Choir Singers. The renowned soprano Iano Alibegashvili made a special guest appearance and performed His Holiness and Beatitude Ilia II, Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia’s musical rendition of the “Ave Maria”.  

It was extraordinary. What a rare “stage”! We were enveloped by the frescoes of Creation and the Last Judgement of Michelangelo, where for centuries popes have been elected at a time when humanity lives under the shadows of wars.  

With the participation of the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See and invited guests the concert was live streamed and rebroadcast at various times throughout the following month.  People came to raise a hymn, a prayer for peace. What a magnificent “statement”!

AK:  The religious aspect is one of the main factors that differs the Vatican’s diplomacy from the other countries’. Armenia and Georgia must be especially interesting as they are in fact the world’s oldest Christian countries, is that correct? At the same time, both countries – and their churches – are quite different from each other, and so are the social and political roles of the Church.  As you work with both, you have unique opportunity to view Armenia and Georgia “in parallel”. Is there anything that surprised you in the religious lives of these Christian neighbors, or in their interaction between each other? 

JAB: Perhaps there are various things that distinguish the Holy See’s diplomacy and certainly religion is amongst them.  Touching one’s true beliefs is touching the depths of one’s being.  

 The Holy See ... does not wish to become “reduced” to a vote in the United Nations Assembly.  The Holy See with its “observer status” has a voice and is free to engage its “moral authority” with other states on the same level.

The Holy See is a state recognized by the United Nations with “observer status”. It has diplomatic relations with 185 states. Its “observer status” at the United Nations is a choice of the Holy See itself. It does not wish to become a “member” and in so doing become “reduced” to a vote in the United Nations Assembly. Hence, the Holy See with its “observer status” has a voice and is free to engage its “moral authority” with other states on the same level.

Hence, Holy See diplomats are accredited to states just like other diplomats are accredited to host states.  Our primary function is to represent the Holy See to the host state and its institutions. 

In turn, the Holy See represents the Catholic Church with over a billion members spread throughout the world.  The Catholic Church, in all its activity, academic, health care, social outreach, ecumenical, and its networks, is a very large and far-reaching world institution connecting well beyond Christian communities.  

Within the Catholic Church there are 24 Eastern Rite Churches in communion with the Roman Pontiff, all along maintaining their individual autonomy as codified in Canon Law.  In the South Caucasus the Catholic Church is present in three Rites: Latin, Armenian and Syrian-Chaldean. 

Faithful of the Catholic Church are citizens of the South Caucasus countries and have been here for centuries.  They have contributed to the very identity and fabric of each nation.  

Generally, it is agreed that Armenia and Georgia are amongst the oldest Christian nations in the world connected to the Apostles and early Christian Churches.  Each also has a very complex history. 

The Armenian Apostolic Church and the Georgian Orthodox Church both have undergone great persecutions throughout their histories. The architecture of the two traditions differ not to mention the liturgical rites and calendars. I am often invited as Pope Francis representative to liturgical occasions in the Armenian Apostolic Church, while that is very rare in the Georgian Orthodox Church’s liturgical celebrations. 

A careful examination of ancient Christian traditions makes us realize that we are closer theologically than might be perceived.  In Georgia and Armenia ethnicity, history, nationality and religion, each in its own way forged a strong identity in each Church.  

I have had the honour to meet on many occasions with His Holiness Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians, Metropolitans and clergy of the Armenian Apostolic Church, as well as with His Holiness and Beatitude Ilia II, Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia, the Synod of Bishops and clergy of the Georgian Orthodox Church.  

I have an excellent personal relation with each Patriarch and in many cases, we have discussed pertinent questions extensively and broadly.  The Patriarchs have great moral responsibilities toward their faithful under the weight of their great Churches and histories.  I have excellent personal relations with a number of Metropolitans and faithful, both from the Armenian Apostolic Church and the Georgian Orthodox Church.

Historically, the Catholic Church has journeyed with both the Armenian Apostolic Church and the Georgian Orthodox Church.  Suffice it to think of the historical figures that served as bridges between the Churches, such as Angelo Lamberti, the Castelli brothers, and the Augustinian Order’s connection to Queen Ketevan of Georgia.  Or Pope Benedict XV’s appeal for Armenians in 1915, the recognition of St. Gregory of Narek as “Doctor of the Universal Church”, making him the thirty-sixth saint to have such a title, as well as the commemoration celebrated in St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican in 2015, in the presence of Pope Francis, Armenian Patriarchs, Government and Nation.  

When Pope Francis visited Georgia in 2016 and stood in Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in Mtskheta, he referred to the venerated tunic of Christ which according to tradition is kept there and recalled how biblical accounts referred to the tunic as one continuous seamless piece of cloth – just as Christians are called by their very vocation to be.  

From the Catholic Church’s perspective engaging with Sister Churches is not only enriching but a fundamental vocation of the Christian Churches.

AK:  Speaking about Georgia’s and Armenia’s relations with the Holy See, can you outline the main priorities, as well as the differences in approach to each country?  

JAB: In brief, Georgia places crucial importance on international recognition and support for its sovereignty, its territorial integrity, its bid to become a member of the European Union and be part of NATO.  The Holy See supports Georgia.  In 2019 during the official visit to Georgia of His Eminence Pietro Parolin, Cardinal Secretary of State, the “Prime Minister of the Holy See”, his very first appointment upon arrival was to visit the Administrative Boundary Line (ABL) and meet with internally displaced persons.  This was also the case during the visit of H.E. Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Secretary for Relations with States, the “Foreign Minister of the Holy See” in 2018. They were clear signs of support for Georgia.

Armenia places crucial importance in its sovereignty, the status of Nagorno – Karabakh and of the Armenian presence there.  On the top of its agenda are humanitarian questions, in particular freedom for prisoners of war (POW).  In addition, cultural preservation throughout the region is of great concern.  The Holy See has taken up these questions through its own diplomatic channels and is a willing participant in international sponsored bodies, not to mention the numerous high-level visits both in the Vatican and in Armenia. Armenia has had a resident Ambassador to the Holy See for almost ten years, and the Holy See inaugurated the opening of an Apostolic Nunciature in Yerevan in 2021 with the visit of H.E. Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra, the Sostituto [deputy], “Minister of Internal Affairs of the Holy See”.

Essentially each nation wants to live in peace and provide a future for future generations.  The Holy See understands these questions and their importance and treats them with utmost respect and urgency. The Holy See works alongside Armenia and Georgia with its international partners adding its moral voice in the promotion of human dignity in the region.

AK:  Speaking about Georgia, I think the level of popular support of the church is one of the Europe’s highest. At the same time, criticisms towards the church have also been heard, especially in connection with country’s strategy towards the EU integration. How would you define the optimal balance between the secular and clerical authorities in a modern state?

JAB: The question is complex and there are many “pieces to the puzzle” from inside and outside the country and on different levels. 

 Georgia is a European country and it will bring to the European Union many benefits. Membership in the European Union will also serve Georgia well.

When we speak of “the church” we speak of “everyone” and of “no one”.  It is like when I am told “the Vatican says” … I always like to ask who exactly are we speaking about? I think the Georgian Orthodox Church is composed of 85% of the population of Georgia? The Orthodox Churches in EU member countries deal with the same questions that the Georgian Orthodox Church faces.

Any healthy society must be based on timeless values and respect for all, even for those who believe and live differently.  In Georgian history we find extraordinary traditions of cohabitation with peoples of different religious traditions.  Amongst some of the oldest communities in Georgia are Jewish, Muslim and even Catholics. Before European countries allowed women to vote, Georgia was already electing women to its national government. Georgia is a European country and it will bring to the European Union many benefits. Membership in the European Union will also serve Georgia well.

The optimal balance is to rediscover the best of Georgia’s own historical experience and encourage those from the different regions to give their full potential in order to build this great nation.

AK:  Speaking about Armenia, I know that Vatican pays considerable attention to the Karabakh conflict. Can we talk about the Holy See’s approach and your practical experience in this connection?

JAB:  The Holy See pays utmost attention to conflicts and humanitarian situations.  The long running Nagorno-Karabakh war is just one of these wars that has created humanitarian situations.  

Pope Francis was the first world leader to speak about the imminent risk of the impending conflict back in the month of July of 2020, before the start of an all-out war in the month of September, and he spoke about the conflict every week throughout the duration of the war.  Pope Francis made appeals to governments through to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See and its diplomatic network in the world, and to major gatherings of international religious leaders in Rome.  At that time, Pope Francis and the Catholic Church were strong voices in appealing for peace in Nagorno-Karabakh, avoiding bloodshed, victims and the humanitarian crisis.

During the 44-day war, Pope Francis appealed for a ceasefire and for constructive dialogue in view of establishing an enduring peace.  He urging the international community to do its part to assist and support the peace process.  

Armenia is concerned with its security, the plight of its prisoners of war and with its cultural heritage.  These are important questions.  It is a question of humanity because bringing about peace will benefit everyone.  The position of Pope Francis and of the Holy See is clear.  The Holy See urged and worked alongside international partners to bring about a lasting solution to the situation and bring aid to the humanitarian situation.

 Technology and the social means of communications require greater attention.  They have the capability to build or even to destroy society...

AK:  Though our name is Caucasian Journal, our journal often goes beyond the regional agenda and attempts to touch more mainstream issues. With its truly global influence, the Holy See’s policy is especially important. Would you emphasize any areas? Maybe the peace agenda, as it’s so vital for so many people nowadays?

JAB: There are many areas that merit our attention and I would certainly say:
  • Peace is essential.  In war everything is lost and the future is compromised.  We are all interconnected and affected by what happens in any corner of the world, suffice it to think of the Covid-19 world health pandemic and how it spread throughout the planet affecting every individual.  
  • Human dignity is an important question. Providing the essential living conditions to each and every human being at every level of human development, from the child to the elderly (health care, education, shelter, work, etc.).  Not least is the respect for the dignity of all no matter the person’s sex, age, race, creed or ethnicity.  Educating for respect, starting from within the educational system from the primary school level through higher institutions of learning, and through to national authorities and institutions.
  • Encouraging an ever-higher sense of social responsibility and service among the general population to engage in favour of the greater good of society.  
  • Foreign institutions and “agents” hosted in any one particular country must realize they are guests.  Imposing “ideologies” does not serve anyone.
  • Technology and the social means of communications require greater attention.  They have the capability to build or even to destroy society, and it is changing so quickly.
These are some areas among so many others to consider.

 In my life, the “saints” that I knew best were in my immediate family, who inspired and encouraged values and generosity.

AK:  Let’s change our focus quite a bit.  Is it true that Peter de Betancurt, a Catholic saint, comes from the same family as you do? My apologies if this might be a personal question, but it is so uncommon to be related to a saint that I could not help asking if this had influenced your life. 

JAB: If we go through our own genealogies, we will all find relatives that inspire and raise our gaze to higher values and dignity to which we are all called to.  In my life, the “saints” that I knew best were in my immediate family, who inspired and encouraged values and generosity. Everyone can find virtuous relatives in their own families.

AK: This is very well said indeed... You are decorated with two national orders – one is Order of Christ, which since 1319 belonged to Knights of Templar, and the second is Grand Officer of Order of Merit of the Italian Republic. Our readers would not forgive me if I do not inquire about the story behind your outstanding decorations. 

JAB: There are sixteen state honours, including one which I am very honoured to have received this last year from the President of the Republic of Armenia. 
The Order of Christ was presented personally by the President of Portugal at the official residence in Lisbon.  It was a real honour for me.  The order is rooted in antiquity, given that Portugal never abolished the Templars rather transformed and integrated them into its national epic, yet its existence today is an honorary one.  

The most important thing is service for the better good of humanity.  In this sense, I am most “honoured” for having been named by Pope Francis as an archbishop and apostolic nuncio at the service of the Holy See, and the people and places where I serve.  For this I truly give thanksgiving to God.  

During a recent traditional Georgian “supra” (dinner party) and the accompanying –“gamarjose” (toasts), the “tamada” (leader and director of the evening) wanted to toast to the “mother land” of each of the international guests gathering around the table.  In my case the “mother land” to toast was not clear… I suggested that my “mother land” laid most of all in my faith… 

AK:  If there is anything that you would like to add for our readers, the floor is yours. I believe many of our readers would be looking forward to hearing your message. 

 If I were to spend a lifetime in the South Caucasus, I would still discover the depths and novelties of these ancient lands.

JAB: I would like to thank you for the news and analysis that Caucasian Journal and its able staff provides its readers, of which I count myself amongst them. News outlets have a social responsibility of informing and building constructive societies.  Thank you for this service.

In the Caucasus I have experienced another perspective of the world, as seen from the “old silk road” of the South Caucasus.  I have been enchanted at the views of Mont Ararat and valleys where Noah’s descendants laboured; enticed in the lands of the tales of the “Golden Fleece”, and treated to the abundant aromatic and succulent cornucopias of the land’s harvests, savouring wines still produced according to centuries-old methods.  I have beheld the sight of early Christian devotional icons and held ancient jewel clad adornments of ancient fashionable civilizations.  And I have come to the conclusion that even if I were to spend a lifetime in the South Caucasus, I would still discover the depths and novelties of these ancient lands.

Since I have come to the South Caucasus, we have lived through years of challenges and accomplishments.  I have indeed grown in appreciation for the people and lands of this region.  In thirty years of independence these countries have taken giant steps in their development and have taken their rightful place on the world stage.  I have met admirable people with an extraordinary sense of service in what they do and in their duty to their nation.  Here, I have breathed, seen and touched new pinnacles.   I am a Bettencourishvili when I am in Georgia, and a “state honoured” Bettencouryian when I am in Armenia… because “faith” is my “motherland”.

Thank you!

AK: Thank you very much for excellent answers. I have really enjoyed this interview!

Read the Georgian language version here.  Read the Armenian language version here

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