Armenian Churches Face Uncertain Fate
[May 8, 2006]
There has been controversy surrounding Armenian churches in Georgia since the 1990s. The Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church Diocese in Georgia insists that they have churches there, some of which have remained untended and others of which have been claimed by the Georgians.
"Georgia is the only country in the world where not only do Armenian churches not have legal status, but they are also the subject of heated arguments," said Father Vazgen Mirzakhanyan, Prelate of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Georgia.
The Prelacy has demanded that Georgian authorities return the churches and give the Diocese legal status.
Georgian historians and clergymen not only deny that the churches are of Armenian origin, but also claim that the Legal Code in Georgia prohibits giving the Armenian Church legal status.
The Prelacy of the Diocese in Georgia has officially appealed on a number of occasions for legal status and for the return of the churches to the Georgian President, the Ministry of Justice, the Patriarch of all Georgians, the Parliamentary Committee for Human Rights Protection and Civil Integration as well as the Georgian Ombudsman. Only the Ministry of Justice and the Ombudsman have replied, but they have given no grounds to expect change.
"I consider the Armenian demand justified. The freedom of religion that the Georgian Constitution provides has been violated. Only the Georgian Orthodox Church is registered here today. There is controversy today surrounding even those churches where Armenian origin is common knowledge," said Georgian Ombudsman Sozar Subarin, noting the Surp Nshan Church in Akhaltsikhe and the Norashen Church in Tbilisi.
Norashen, Surp Nshan (Holy Sign), Karmir Avetaranots, Mughnetsots, Saint Gevorg and Saint Minas are the churches that the Prelacy of the Diocese in Georgia has requested. Recently however, Armenian and Georgian mass media have quoted figures of around 600 such churches. The Prelacy clarified that this was the number of churches constructed in Georgia by the Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Georgia over the 15 centuries of its activity there.
Documents concerning each of the churches are stored in various Georgian archives as well as at the Mother See of Holy Echmiadzin. The Armenian side has demanded only six of them today. All of these churches have been closed for decades and neglected. The only exception is the Surp Nshan church in Akhaltsikhe, which opened to the faithful in the 1990s, though it is not considered a functioning Armenian church and Mass has not been celebrated there.
Zurab Tskhovrebadze, deputy director of the press office of the Georgian Patriarchate considered the Armenian demand unfair. "The Georgian Diocese of the Armenian Church does not have a 15-century history. As for the 'statement regarding 600 churches', that is simply a misunderstanding," Tskhovrebadze said.
The Armenian demands were incomprehensible to Tina Ivelashvili, who has done a lot of research on the churches at the center of controversy. "The Armenians should primarily pay attention to the cultural monuments that they already possess. True, there are Armenian churches in Georgia, but not as many as the Armenian side claims. Many of the churches they demand have a Georgian history, including the one in Akhaltsikhe, the so called Surp Nshan church," said Ivelashvili.
"When answering the question 'To whom does this or that church belong?' one should first say that they are the wealth of the Republic of Georgia, and Georgia is also responsible for their condition," declared Elene Tevdoradze, president of the Georgian Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights and Civil Integration.
But to this day no one has paid any attention to the churches closed due to controversy and standing at the edge of ruin.
"We are the committee that is authorized to deal with issues such as this one. But we do not have the right to make a decision on our own. I have presented the appeal of the Armenian Prelacy regarding legal status to the Speaker of Parliament and the Georgian Patriarch. But it turned out that the demands that the Armenian side was making were unacceptable," said Elene Tevdoradze.
Although the Norashen church is not functional, the Armenian community often gathers in its yard to discuss current news and the past.
"We are all impatiently waiting for the day when the Norashen Church will start to function again. Our ancestors helped build this church. My grandparents were baptized and married here. The Hovanatanyans have been laid to rest here. It is simply inexcusable to deny historical facts. We are all ready to do anything necessary so that our closed churches function again and serve the community. Our rights are being violated, but nobody is doing anything. This is a horrible situation," said Yuri Oganesov, a resident of Georgia.
Tbilisi resident Rezo Khutsishvili had a different point of view regarding the Norashen Church. He said, "I have heard that the Norashen Church used to be Georgian, but was put up for sale and bought by the Armenians. I also heard that we could buy it back, but it would cost a large amount."
According to Father Vazgen Mirzakhanyan, Prelate of the Armenian Apostolic Church Diocese in Georgia, Georgian historians and clergymen are spreading false information, "They are falsifying history. Even if the Armenians had bought any church, according to international laws regarding ownership what has been bought is the property of the owner."
"The Georgian side does not want to discuss the issues with us until we gain legal status, because we cannot otherwise be a legal party to any talks. But nobody is doing anything to give the Prelacy and the churches legal status," said Father Vazgen.
"This problem is actually shared by other churches in Georgia - the Catholics and other faiths. But everyone really knows which church belongs to whom. A corresponding legal code needs to be adopted, on the basis of which it will be possible to arrange the transfer of these churches to their legal heirs," said Georgiy Meladze, representative of Liberty University, a human rights NGO.
Solving the legal status issue is seen as the answer to this problem by both the Georgian and Armenian sides. But the agenda of the Georgian Parliament at this stage does not include discussion of the law regarding religious freedom.
By the time that law is passed, there will probably only be ruins left of many of the churches in question.