The 17 year old conflict relating to Norashen Church, one of the Armenian churches in Tbilisi has just reached another step with the obvious attempt to change historical facts.
A few months ago, hundred year old Georgian grave stones, carrying Georgian inscriptions, suddenly appeared in the courtyard of the Armenian Church Norashen. Rather, they were transported here. Our photographer and cameraman filmed these stones still wrapped in their iron wires, thrown randomly into the church’s courtyard. In the meantime these stones have been neatly lined up and safely installed along the church’s wall. The reasoning behind is crystal clear: these actions serve to “prove” that the church is in fact a Georgian orthodox one, as according to the words of the Georgian priest, Father Tariel, the Armenians would have never let the Georgians bury in their dead in front of their own church. At the same time as the Georgian stones were brought from an unknown cemetery to Tbilisi, the Armenian ones, located on the other side of the church were found vandalised – the Armenian inscriptions had been destroyed.
The Church Norashen is located in Tbilisi, on Leselidze Street, flanked on the left by a Greek church, now transformed into a Georgian orthodox one, on the right by the Georgian Church Sioni and a few more meters further down the synagogue the mosque. For centuries, the different confessions have lived side by side in peace and friendship.
Norashen was founded in 1467 and renovated in 1650 by Nazar. At this time, the great cupola was rebuilt by Master Petros. A series of renovations followed in 1795, 1808 and in 1875. The Lidatamashian and Vartanov families and Katarina Pridonian are buried next to the Church. In 1924-25, a committee consisting of Georgian officials suggests to completely destroy the church to allow for the construction of the “Armenian Bazaar” street (now Leselidze). The majority of the committee members approved this decision. However, on 2 July 1925, Severov put the issue on the agenda again and ferociously opposing the project, succeeded in stopping the destruction. Later yet, during the Soviet era, the church was transformed into an archive.
Eventually, in 1989, shortly before Georgia’s independence and under the influence of the ultra-nationalist Gamsakhurdia, the Georgians intensified and multiplied their actions aimed at appropriating the church in order to transform it into a Georgian orthodox one. They reached their climax in 1994, when the local Armenians started worrying after having been informed that all valuable books were being taken from the archive. All that was left were Marx’s and Lenin’s complete works, which led to believe that Norashen would have the same fate as Karmir Avetaran, which once used to be Tbilisi’s highest Armenian church (40m high) before being completely destroyed in an explosion in the fall of 1989.
On 25 January 1995, the Armenians living in the vicinity of Norashen noticed that apparent renovation works had started inside the church. An official protest, delivered on 2 February by the Armenian Ambassador in Georgia, H.E. Khatchatrian and the president of the Armenian Association of Charity and Culture, Mr. Muradian, to the Georgian priest in charge of the renovation works, Father Tariel, were countered with contempt. Three days later, Ter Yerishe, the Armenian priest, caught this same Tariel, axe in hand, at the renovation works - that is demolishing the High Altar. Ter Yerishe told him: “You, who are supposed to be serving the Lord, you destroy the Lord’s house. Take off your cross and your coat at least!” Father Tariel to answer: “I am a priest and I do what I have been told.” On 8 February, the Master Petros’ inscription on the wall, telling the reconstruction of the cupola in 1650, was wiped out. Other Armenian inscriptions, two khachkars and two magnificent frescoes of the Hovnatanyan School from the 19th century were also damaged and destroyed.
In days following these acts of vandalism, a group of Armenians in the company of a photographer were barred from entering the church, instead they were greeted with fascistic insults by the Georgians and priests. They were attacked and the photographer, who ducked to protect his camera, only managed to escape after the intervention of one the Armenian women in the group, who jumped at the priest pulling his beard and throwing him down.
On 15 February, the church was consecrated according to the Georgian orthodox rite.
One month later, the Archbishops Garegin and Grigoris came from Armenia to Tbilisi, where they met with Iliad II, the Georgian Patriarch and it was decided to stop all actions until the advent of better times. The church has been closed since.
Now, after the appearance of the fake Georgian graves, emotions are flying high again with consequences not to be foreseen. For Father Abgar, the Armenian priest in Tbilisi, there is no doubt that Norashen shall open its doors again as Armenian Apostolic Church and that the tombstones must be returned to their places of origin. Alas, the cases of vandalism and appropriation of Armenian cultural heritage, including Armenian cemeteries, have not ceased to increase over the past decades, Norashen being just one sad example among many others.
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Levon A. Isakhanyan