Monday, 5 January 2009

Armenian News

Armenians, Georgians In Unholy Row Over Church
By Nina Akhmeteli, AFP

Amidst the rambling homes and cobble-stoned 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 neighbor, 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 weeks, 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 symbolize what some in the local Armenian community say is the
"Georgianization" 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

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
graveyard. 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 church yard 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. "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
allegations. "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."

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.

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