Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Georgia: Collapse of Armenian Church Provokes Row

Armenian minority say incident illustrates their limited rights in the country.
By Lela Iremashvili
The collapse of an Armenian church in Tbilisi has angered Georgia’s Armenians and provoked accusations that the government is not protecting ethnic minority rights.



The Saint Gevorg of Mughni church dated from the 13th century and stood in the Georgian capital’s historic centre until it fell down on November 19. No one was hurt, but locals blamed the government, saying it had failed to protect a religious monument.



“They spent money on all these secondary things. Now, for New Year, they have hung lights above all the roads. Meanwhile churches, and many houses, are still not repaired,” Gayane Khachturova, a resident of Tbilisi’s old town, said.



“The government needs to spend its money correctly.”



The authorities promised to restore the church immediately, but did not manage to head off outrage in Armenia, where people feel the Georgian government discriminates against the Armenian Apostolic Church.



Students, politicians, religious figures and youth groups protested outside the Georgian embassy in Yerevan on November 24, demanding the registration of their church by Tbilisi and the return of buildings confiscated in the Soviet era.



"Georgia’s conduct over the issue is impermissible and unacceptable for a civilised and Christian country,” said Vahan Hovhannisian, a member of the Armenian parliament from the nationalist Dashnaktsutiun party.



"Only international pressure on Georgia can work here and this is what we intend to do.”



Dashnaktsutiun, and other Armenian groups, said the Georgian government had ignored calls for the church to be restored and persistently refused to satisfy the demands of the Armenian minority, which makes up about five per cent of the Georgian population.



Ethnic Georgians, who are almost 80 per cent of the population, are overwhelmingly Orthodox and their church has different beliefs to the Armenian Apostolic Church. The Orthodox Church has strong influence in the country, and Armenians say their own faith is discriminated against as a result.



“Of course, the Georgian Orthodox Church is to blame here, since it is very aggressive against national and religious minorities. Today, as a result of this aggression, no religious movement in Georgia apart from the Orthodox Church has legal registration,” said Shirak Torosian, a member of the Armenian parliament from the Republican Party and chairman of the Javakhk union, which campaigns for Georgia’s Armenian minority.



His words found support in Georgia, where activists accused the Georgian government of not taking enough care of ethnic minorities. Armenian and Georgian believers have regularly clashed over the ownership of churches, with Armenians accusing their rivals of effectively stealing buildings that belonged to them before the Bolshevik revolution.



“The Georgian authorities explain the delay in repairing the church of Saint Gevorg by referring to its disputed ownership, but this is not a genuine reason. Other churches are in the same condition, and those are ones that the Armenian church has no claim to. The situation must be resolved,” said Arnold Stepanyan, chairman of the pressure group Multinational Georgia.



“At the moment the Armenian Apostolic Church is asking for the return of five churches in Georgia. Four of them are in Tbilisi, and one is in Akhaltsikhe… It is hard to estimate the number of Armenian churches on Georgian territory, since different researchers and organisations give different figures. The figure normally given is 150.”



Nikoloz Vacheishvili, head of the National Agency for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage, said the church, which is owned by the state and has not operated since Soviet times, would be restored at once.



“Work on the restoration of the church has already started. Now, the parts needing urgent repair are being strengthened by Tbilisi city hall,” he said.



“These works will be finished by April or May 2010. After that a budget will be prepared and sources of financing identified for the restoration work.”



He said a commission could also be set up, containing officials and religious leaders from Armenia and Georgia, to decide to whom the church really belongs. He said a group of officials from Armenia had come for talks already.



“We invited them to take part in the drafting work, and in the restoration work. I think our Armenian colleagues were satisfied,” he said.



Stepanyan, however, said the main problem was that the Armenian Apostolic Church did not enjoy the same advantages in Georgia as the Georgian Orthodox Church. He said the lack of registration made it difficult for Armenian religious communities to pay taxes, to register property, and to reach believers in prison – since that required permission from the Georgian Orthodox Church.



The Georgian Patriarchate, however, said the lack of registration was not its doing, and urged the government to afford the Armenians legal status.



“This is a question for the state, and not for the Orthodox Church. I think that some kind of status must be awarded to them. Of course, this must not be same as that of the Orthodox Church with its special role in the history of the country, but there must be a particular legal status,” said Gerasime, Metropolitan of Zugdidi and head of the patriarchate’s department for external affairs.



“As far as I know, this question is now under discussion.”



Lela Iremashvili is a freelance journalist. Hasmik Hambadzumyan is a reporter with Panorama online.

More IWPR's Global Voices