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

Tbilisi Witnesses Unholy Row

Call for commission to settle long-running dispute over ownership of Tbilisi church.
By Fati Mamiashvili, Sara Khojoyan

At around midday on November 16, 22-year-old Alexander Oganov saw a bulldozer next to the Armenian church named “Holy Norashen” in the old town district of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.



In the churchyard, Oganov saw that the tombstones of 19th century Armenian benefactor Mikhail Tamashev and his wife Lidia had been prized up from the ground. The young man photographed the scene on his mobile phone and then called the police.



“In the churchyard I saw Father Tariel, who is the priest of the Georgian church next door to Norashen,” said Oganov. “He told me, ‘Don’t worry, we’re cleaning the churchyard and levelling the ground and we will put the tombstones back later’.”



Later, after the police arrived, the tombstones were indeed put back. But this did not prevent a furious row from breaking out, with Armenian parishioners complaining that the Georgian priest had insulted the memory of the dead.



The episode has rekindled the long-running row between the Georgian Orthodox Church and the Armenian Apostolic Church over the ownership and upkeep of a number of churches on Georgian territory. Amongst them is the Norashen church in Tbilisi, which the Armenians lay claim to but which is still owned by the Georgian state.



The row was poorly covered in the Georgian media, with television not devoting any attention to it at all. In Armenia, however, a series of angry articles was published, some of them accusing Georgians of carrying out “enforced Georgianisation” of Armenian churches in Georgia.



After, Armenian bloggers leapt into action, a protest rally was held outside the Georgian embassy in Yerevan on November 27, with the demonstrators demanding the Georgian authorities stop destroying Armenian cultural monuments.



Vardan Astzatrian, head of the department of nationalist minorities and religion in the Armenian government, called the incident an act of vandalism.



“This kind of thing can only happen in a country which is not taking proper care of things,” said Astzatrian. “Moreover, this kind of action can be very dangerous for the maintenance of stability which is very important now in the region.”



However, Father Tariel, the Georgian priest at the centre of the row, told IWPR that there had been merely a misunderstanding.



“I would never dishonour graves, even if they were the graves of [medieval Muslim conquerors of Georgia] Jalal ad-din and Shah Abbas,” said the priest. “The ground had sunk in that place and I wanted to level it out again but they didn’t let me.”



Mikhail Avakian, spokesman for the Armenian diocese in Georgia, said he doubted Father Tariel’s version of events. “Cleaning up is the job of the appropriate mayoral service and not Father Tariel,” he said.



This was the latest episode in a long-running quarrel between the local Armenians and Father Tariel. In May, he had a fence built alongside one of the walls of Norashen covered in Georgian orthodox symbols. The priest said he had done this with the permission of the mayor’s office to help protect the church.



The Armenian diocese called for the fence to be taken down – something which has not yet been done.



Father Tariel says the Armenians are causing trouble because they want to get their hands on the Norashen church, whose origins are disputed.

According to Georgia’s 2002 census, Armenians comprise 7.6 per cent of the population of Tbilisi. A century ago, the Armenian population in the city was much larger. Georgians and Armenians view the history of the city in completely different ways.

The Armenian diocese says that Norashen is an Armenian church dating back to the 15th century. Avakian said that in the 1930s the Bolsheviks closed it for worship, used it as a book warehouse and handed the building over to the local government.



The Georgian historian Bondo Arveladze says that Norashen was illegally built by Armenians on the ruins of an Orthodox church.



“In the archives you won’t find any document authorising its construction issued by the tsar or the patriarch of that time,” said Arveladze.



Ever since Georgian regained its independence in 1991, the Armenian diocese has tried unsuccessfully to recover Norashen. The church is still owned by the ministry of economics, with the ministry of culture responsible for its upkeep.



Nikloloz Antadze, who is responsible for the protection of monuments at the ministry of culture, said that Norashen was not in need of urgent help and that the issue of its restoration was not on their agenda.



The doors of the church are currently locked. One of the last men to gain entrance was Father Tariel, a decade ago. He briefly began holding Georgian services there.



“I didn’t break into the church I simply opened the doors,” said Father Tariel. “The wooden alter was already rotten, we erected a Georgian one in its place and started to conduct services there, although the patriarch soon stopped us from doing that.”



The Armenian and Georgian churches have agreed to resolve their differences over Norashen and five other disputed churches, but the commission tasked with doing this has not yet been set up.



“The political authorities have to form a commission which will put an end to this conflict,” said Levan Ramishvili, head of the non-governmental Liberty Institute. “If the church is Armenia then it ought to be given back to the Armenians. The commission should first establish whose it is.”



Armenian prime minister Tigran Sarkisian reportedly raised the issue during informal talks with his Georgian counterpart on a visit to Tbilisi on December 9.



In the meantime, the Georgian-Armenian society Nor Serundi (meaning New Generation) has taken on the role of mediator in the dispute.



“We live together in Georgia and nothing should divide us,” read the slogan of around 300 Armenians and Georgians who formed a human chain linking a series of Georgian and Armenian churches, amongst them Norashen. The head of the society, Mari Mikoyan, blamed people for whipping up tensions about this issue.



“This country is still in a state of war,” said Mikoyan, whose father is Armenian and whose mother is Georgian and who was awarded a medal for her services as a front-line doctor in the August war over South Ossetia. “Anyone who artificially raises the issue of disputed churches and tries to trade on it is an enemy of his people and religion!



“The time has come for historians, cultural scholars and diocesan officials to think about this.”



Fati Mamiashvili is a reporter with Rustavi-2 television in Tbilisi. Sara Khojoyan is a reporter with Armenianow.com in Yerevan.