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Tbilisi Church Dispute Clouds Georgian-Armenian Ties

By Emil Danielyan

Senior clerics from the Armenian Apostolic Church will travel to Tbilisi early next month to try to resolve an increasingly bitter dispute over the ownership of a local 15th century church which threatens to sour Georgian-Armenian relations.

The delegation headed by Archbishop Pargev Martirosian of Nagorno-Karabakh will meet with the leadership of the Georgian Orthodox Church over its alleged attempts to take over one of Tbilisi’s oldest Armenian churches known as Norashen. The dispute, already discussed by the governments of the two neighboring countries, comes amid what the Armenian clergy sees as a systematic destruction of Armenian monuments in Georgia.

The Armenian Church’s diocese in Georgia has been crying foul since “fake tombstones” with Georgian inscriptions were placed in Norashen’s courtyard in central Tbilisi at the orders of a Georgian priest late last year. Although the Georgian Church disavowed the priest’s actions, the diocese leaders fear that it is preparing ground for Norashen’s takeover.

“The Armenian Diocese in Georgia hopes that the upcoming negotiations will settle the outstanding problems, including the one connected to Norashen, the appropriation of which continues as of now,” read its statement released on Tuesday.

Tbilisi has for centuries had a large Armenian community. Its economic and political heyday was during the final decades of the Russian Empire when the city had mostly Armenian mayors and was considered the cultural center of the Caucasian Armenians.

“At the end of the 19th century, Tbilisi counted 29 active Armenian Churches, today a mere two are left,” said the statement. “Eight Armenian Churches have undergone appropriation efforts and were turned into Georgian ones. In addition, frescos, khachkars (traditional Armenian stone crosses) and all Armenian references have systematically been destroyed. The fate of five churches, including Norashen, currently lies in the hands of the Georgian patriarchate.”

“The destruction and appropriation process of the Armenian spiritual and ecclesiastical heritage continues throughout Georgia. Many historians already refer to it as a genocide of the Armenian cultural heritage in Georgia,” the diocese charged.

Armenian officials raised the issue with Georgia’s Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli during his recent visit to Yerevan. Noghaideli said after the talks that the two sides agreed to let the two churches try to sort out the dispute before deciding whether they should intervene.

The two governments, always keen to put an optimistic spin on bilateral ties, could also be forced to deal with fresh tension mounting in Georgia’s Armenian-populated Javakheti region. Thousands of local residents took to the streets last week to protest against Tbilisi’s latest demands for the withdrawal of Russian troops based in the regional town of Akhalkalaki. Georgia’s Imedi TV reported that another rally is scheduled in Akhalkalaki for March 31.

The Russian military base is the single largest employer in the economically depressed area and the Javakheti Armenians say the Georgian government must create alternative jobs before demanding its closure. Many Georgians, however, feel that the local population is manipulated by Russia which is reluctant to end its military presence in Georgia.

A foreign policy aide to Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, Giorgi Gachechiladze, has reportedly accused the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), a nationalist party represented in Armenia’s government, of contributing to unrest in Javakheti with the aim of “breaking up” Georgia. The Dashnaktsutyun leadership issued a strongly-worded denial of the accusations on Friday.

“The Armenian Revolutionary Federation is pursuing the protection of the rights of the Armenians of Javakhk within Georgia,” it said in a statement. “Statements such as those made by the Georgian president’s advisor may only sow disturbance in the Caucasus.”

Two Dashnaktsutyun leaders met with Georgia’s recently appointed ambassador to Armenia, Revaz Gochechiladze, to protest Gachechiladze’s remarks on Tuesday. A statement by the party’s press service said the envoy assured Armen Rustamian and Levon Mkrtchian that the Saakashvili adviser did not express the Georgian government’s position on the issue.

(Photo by the Armenian Diocese in Georgia.)

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