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Clash at Armenian Church in Georgia Investigated

Claims that Armenians were target of ethnic attack are disputed by eyewitnesses.
By Sopho Bukia, Arpi Harutyunyan
  • Worshippers at an Armenian Apostolic Church service in Georgia. (Photo: Armenian Apostolic Church in Georgia)
    Worshippers at an Armenian Apostolic Church service in Georgia. (Photo: Armenian Apostolic Church in Georgia)

A fight between worshippers and locals outside an Armenian church in the Georgian capital Tbilisi has sparked an investigation into alleged xenophobia, despite witnesses agreeing it was sparked by an argument over a parking space.

The incident began on July 19, when according to the Armenian Apostolic Church in Georgia, a woman who had parked outside Tbilisi’s Holy Echmiadzin church either refused or was unable to remove her car. Other witnesses say it was a priest who refused to move his car. All agree that the two then started arguing.

“A priest came out and started shouting at the woman. Her husband then came down and saw this. Then the people who had been in the church came out and the fight started,” local resident and ethnic Armenian Serj Grigoryan, an eyewitness to the events, told IWPR.

However, Father Manuk Zeynalyan, a priest at the Holy Echmiadzin church, said it was the bystanders who started shouting abuse, and who then attacked him and others.

“We had no choice but to defend ourselves by hitting back, after which the crowd dispersed and the church service could begin,” he told IWPR.

The church said the same group returned after the service, and attacked Zeynalyan and two other church employees with weapons including a scalpel.

“Then they threw beer bottles at the church. The priest and the lawyer suffered most, and were severely beaten. The attackers stole the priest’s pectoral cross and took it with them,” said spokeswoman Susanna Khachatryan.

Prosecutors said they were investigating the clash as a straightforward assault, but the Armenian church issued a statement in which it insisted the attack had been ethnically motivated.

“For many centuries, we have been concerned about Georgia’s internal stability, about interethnic and interfaith relations, and we call on the Georgian government to take all the necessary measures to avoid ethnic and religious splits within Georgian society,” the statement said.

There is a significant Armenian minority in Georgia, concentrated in the capital and the Javakheti region in the south of the country, and inter-communal relations are generally good.

On July 22, the Georgian Orthodox patriarchate held a meeting between Gerasime, the Georgian metropolitan of Zugdidi and Tsaishi diocese, and Vazgen Mirzakhanyan, the Armenian bishop in Georgia, to defuse tensions.

“The two sides noted that the clash began for personal reasons, and was not religious or ethnic in character, something that the majority of non-governmental and human rights organisations agree with. It is a shame that there are some who make inaccurate and irresponsible statements,” the patriarchate said in a statement.

In turn, Mirzakhanyan asked Gerasime to spend more time campaigning for tolerance and Christian love.

The clash was widely reported in the Georgian and Armenian media, and Multinational Georgia, an NGO, sent employees to the site to interview witnesses before concluding that the clash had not been ethnically motivated.

“Hatred of Armenians is a problem in Georgia, but was not a factor in this particular case,” Arno Stepanyan, the head of the organisation, told IWPR.

Shirak Torosyan, a member of parliament from Armenia’s ruling Republican Party who was born in Georgia’s majority Armenian Javakheti region, agreed.

He said the clash had probably not been caused by ethnic hatred, but added, “I think the Georgian leadership must conduct a serious investigation and punish the guilty, and also work to create an atmosphere in which religiously or ethnically motivated incidents are impossible.”

Ucha Nanuashvili, the official human rights ombudsman in Georgia, said his staff were also looking into the case.

“The investigation must fully answer the question of whether there was any racial background to this incident. It’s important that the assessment be done correctly, and the investigation be rapid and effective,” he said.

Some of the local residents who clashed with the priests called a press conference to relay their side of the story to the media. Tamaz Khachaturov, an ethnic Armenian, denied there had been any kind of racial aspect to the attack.

“Whoever had been there at that time would have done the same, whatever their ethnicity – Armenian, Georgian, Russian, Azeri, Kurd, whoever. This was just a standard Tbilisi-style disagreement,” he told reporters.

Sopho Bukia is an IWPR-trained journalist and a reporter for Rustavi-2 television in Georgia. Arpi Harutyunyan is a journalist with Armnews television in Armenia.