Nina Akhmeteli

Expatica Germany re/news_focus/Armenians_-Georgians-in-unholy-row-o ver-disputed-church-_13867.html
April 1 2009

In a country that has undergone years of ethnic and political discord,
including a war with Russia last August, a debate over the ownership
of a church is only one of its many divisive internal battles.

Amidst the rambling homes and cobblestone streets of the Georgian
capital Tbilisi's old town, two stone churches stand side-by-side,
sharing a snow-covered courtyard.

One, the Georgian Orthodox Church of Jvaris Mama, is alive with
parishioners and lit candles. Its neighbour, the Norashen Church,
sits lonely and locked.

Unused for nearly seven decades, the Norashen Church is at the heart
of long-running dispute between the Armenian Apostolic and the Georgian
Orthodox Churches.

The dispute has flared again in recent months, raising ethnic tensions
in Georgia as it is still recovering from an August war with Russia
over the South Ossetia region, where ethnic Ossetian separatists
broke from Georgian control in the early 1990s.

Ownership disputes between the two churches are common but the Norashen
Church has come to symbolise what some in the local Armenian community
say is the "Georgianisation" of traditionally Armenian churches.

Armenian experts say the Norashen Church was built in the 15th century
for the local Armenian community and continued to operate until it was
shut down during the Soviet Union's anti-religion drive in the 1930s.

The Georgian church says there is no conclusive evidence that Norashen
was Armenian and that its origins are open to debate. When the Soviet
Union collapsed in 1991, ownership of the church fell to the Georgian
government and the dispute has yet to be resolved.

The latest flare-up occurred when local Armenians claimed that
the priest of the Georgian church next to Norashen, Father Tariel
Sikinchelashvili, tried to remove Armenian tombstones from its

Alexander Ohanian, the head of the head of Armenian Cooperation Centre
of Georgia, said that in mid-November he saw a bulldozer working in
the churchyard and that two Armenian tombstones had been removed.

Local Armenians gathered in the yard and confronted Father Tariel,
accusing him of seeking to remove evidence that the church is Armenian.

The tombstones were later returned but Ohanian said local Armenians
don't believe their removal was an accident.

'All I can do now is pray'

"It is too naive to think that he acted alone, without permission
from his superiors," Ohanian said.

A senior Armenian priest in Tbilisi, Father Narek Kushian, said the
Georgian church has been trying to convert the building since 1989.

"Father Tariel is trying to seize the church and add Orthodox
attributes to raise questions about its origin," Kushian said. "The
inscription on the cupola of the church was erased by him and the
main attributes showing this church is Armenian, such as the altar,
have also been destroyed."

Approached in his church, Father Tariel refused to comment on the

"I am just too tired of it all," he said. "I've done as much as I
can and all I can do now is pray."

A spokesman for the Georgian Orthodox Church, Davit Sharashenidze, said
a commission is to resolve ownership disputes between the two churches.

"We can't say unambiguously that it is an Armenian church, as there
is also evidence backing opposite claims," he said. "The Georgian
side has similar claims regarding Georgian churches in Armenia and
these issues need study and research by scientists."

A complicated politics

But the dispute has already become political as well as religious.

In recent weeks, hundreds of Armenians have participated in rallies
in Yerevan to protest against the alleged destruction of Armenian
cultural monuments in Georgia.

The dispute was also raised during a December visit by Armenian Prime
Minister Tigran Sarkisian to Georgia.

Georgian Prime Minister Grigol Mgaloblishvili said after meeting his
Armenian counterpart that he hoped no issues would be "politically
exploited" to drive a wedge between the two peoples.

The issue is especially sensitive in Georgia, where interethnic
conflicts in South Ossetia and another separatist region, Abkhazia,
have left thousands dead.

After the Abkhaz and Ossetians, Armenians are the third-largest ethnic
minority in Georgia, with nearly 250,000 Armenians in the country of
4.3 million.