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Church Quarrel: Armenian church in Tbilisi under threat

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Church Quarrel: Armenian church in Tbilisi under threat

By Julia Hakobyan
ArmeniaNow Reporter

An Armenian church in Georgia has again become a subject of debate following a long term dispute between Armenian and Georgian churches.

This time the debate was raised around Norashen church, where several months ago tombs from Georgian cemeteries with Georgian inscriptions appeared.

Norashen, a 15th century construction in the Georgian capital Tbilisi is located next to Georgian Orthodox Church Jvris monastery. Father Tariel, the priest of monastery, who brought the Georgian tombs into the Armenian church, said in an interview to Georgian Mzera TV Company that “all the churches on the territory of Georgia belong to Georgian Orthodox Church, with the exception of some, built also by Georgians”. Referring to Norashen the Georgian priest said that “church was taken away from Georgians by Russians, privatized and then sold to Armenians”. Father Tariel assured if digging at the church, he would discover new Georgian tombs.

Last week the Georgian Diocese of the Armenian Church and several non Armenian organizations issued statements protesting against assimilation of Norashen and “obvious attempt of falsification of the historical facts.” Aggressive actions of Georgian ecclesiastic are “blasphemy towards the deceased, from whose graves the tombstones were taken”, said father Abgar, the representative of Armenian Eparchy in Georgia.

“In fact father Tariel does not deny that the Norashen church is Armenian but in his interview to Georgian Rustavi 2 channel he suggested Armenians 'go to your country Armenia and take care of your churches there',” father Abgar told ArmeniaNow.

“Today we have to defend not only Norashen but also Surb Nshan and four other closed half destroyed Armenian churches in Tbilisi. These churches are obviously Armenian and we will not allow appropriating them.”

On March 3 Georgian and Armenian youth organizations organized a peaceful procession in Tbilisi aiming to raise attention to Norashen’s problems. The participants of the action called both Dioceses to enter into negotiation for solving the existing problem.

“The closed Armenian churches on the Georgian territory officially are accepted as architectural monuments and ‘guarded’ by the state and being on the culture ministry’s balance at present,” says Karen Elchyan, the head of Armenian Cooperation Centre of Georgia based in Tbilisi (ACCG). “But only in Tbilisi, six Armenian churches from the list of so called ‘protected’ architectural monuments were transformed into Georgian Church.”

The ACCG as well as other Armenian organizations are going to continue their efforts to prevent from destruction the historical monuments in Georgia.

The attempts to convert Armenian Church Norashen into Georgian started in 1994 when the altar of the church, frescos, and khachkars were ruined in order to eliminate the fact proving the Armenian origin of the building. The protest of the Armenian community was not effective and following the destruction the door with Armenian epigraphy was changed also.

However the culmination of the church’s appropriation happened in 1995 when Norashen was consecrated as Georgian Orthodox.

Such encroachment raised concern in Echmiadzin and an Armenian clergy arrived to Georgia to meet Georgian Patriarch Ilia II. But the problem wasn’t solved and sides agreed to delay the question temporarily “until more favorable times”. The reconstruction works initiated by the Georgian Church were stopped and church status remained unresolved.

The issue of Armenian churches in Georgia is painful for the Armenian community in Georgia. According to official data some 250,000 Armenians live in Georgia however neither community not Armenian Diocese can prevent the further destruction of its churches.

In the beginning of the 20 century there were 30 Armenian churches in Tbilisi. Now only two churches are acting while others have been either destroyed or redecorated to remove any characteristically Armenian architectural features. Now they belong to Georgian Orthodox and other confessions. Georgian authorities strictly deny the facts of churches appropriation.

Samvel Karapetyan, a coordinator of the “Research on Armenian Architecture”, NGO in Yerevan is very skeptical towards the attempts of the Armenian community of Georgia to protect cultural and historical monuments. Karapetyan, who published several books on Armenian monuments in Georgia calls the current efforts “retarded” and “artificial”.

“They had to unite and think what to do before the church was consecrated into Georgian,” he said.

Karapetyan published a book in 1995 where he described day by day what was stolen, destroyed, and vandalized in Norashen church. However he says his book got neither attention nor response from Armenian authorities.

“Norashen is just a sample, a result of our own politics towards our culture. I accuse Georgians in what they do, but moreover I accuse the Armenian government which allows Georgians to do it.”

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