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Attempts to remove grave stones ends with scandal and recriminations

Nona Suvarian, Tbilisi

The situation became tensed about the Church of St. Norasheni located in Leselidze str. in Tbilisi. There are two churches in one yard-Church of St. Norasheni and Orthodox Church of Cross Father. On November 16, father Tariel (Sikinchelashvili), the clergyman of the Orthodox Church intended to remove the grave stones of two Armenian Patrons in the yard and it resulted in a great uproar.

Georgia based Eparchy of Armenian Apostolic Church spread press-release which states that Church of St. Norasheni was built in the XV century and it belonged to the Armenian Eparchy since it foundation.  However, the church lost its function in the 1930s and was used as storage for books. After Georgia gained independence from the Soviet Union, the Georgian government decided to not return the Church of St. Norasheni to Armenian Apostolic Church.

Humanrights.ge interviewed Father Davit Sharashenidze, the head of the Press Center of the Georgian Patriarchate. He did not say anything new about the foundation of the church. However, he pointed out that historians should discuss who are the actual owners of the church.

The source of the problem is that two churches are located in one yard and only the Orthodox Church functions. All activities carried out in the common yard is initiated by Father Tariel Sikinchelashvili.

Mikheil Avagian, head of the Department for Culture, Youth and Education within the Eparchy of Armenian Apostolic Church in Georgia: “Father Tariel Sikinchelashvili started to change the architectural face of the Armenian Church since 1995; he changed those features that proved that the church was Armenian.  He withdrew religions writings and removed items from the altar.

In 2005, Tariel Sikinchelashvili brought grave stones to the yard of the church of St. Norasheni from a strange place and put them at the walls of the church. The text on the grave stones starts with the following words: “Here lies…” That means, there must be graves under those stones. However, there are many witnesses who can confirm that these stones were only brought here several years ago.”

“Tariel Sikinchelashvili started to surround the yard with the fence that is decorated with the attributes of Georgian Orthodox Church. Tbilisi City Hall and Patriarchate decided to dismantle this fence but it is still being constructed. Officials from the City Hall state that Tariel Sikinchelashvili stands in the way of  carrying out their decision. Moreover, he has boarded up the door of the Armenian Church.”

Naturally the situation was not well received by both local Armenians – not to mention the reaction in Armenia. Armenian Eparchy expressed its concern regarding another fact of planned appropriation of the religious property and described the fact as violation of the agreement from Georgian side.

According to the news agency “Kavkaspress” on November 21 Vagram Melikian, the head of the Press Center of the Armenian Apostolic Church, stated at the press-conference in Yerevan, that vandalism acts occur in Georgia because of carelessness of Georgian Orthodox Church. Neither the negotiations between Garegin II, Catholicos of Armenia and Ilia II, Patriarch of Georgia have had any results.

“Georgia follows the way of Turkey and suggests Echmiadzin to establish commission that will investigate which church is Georgian or Armenian in Tbilisi. It is unacceptable for us because we have valid proofs that so-called disputable churches are actually Armenian,” said Vagram Melikian.

According to the same news agency several days ago the issue of the Church of St.Norasheni was discussed on a high-political level. Ovik Abramian, speaker of the Armenian Parliament, is sure that Georgian authority will punish the perpetrators. He discussed the problem with Georgian Ambassador to Armenia. Revaz Gachechiladze, the ambassador, stated that he met Armenian clergymen and authorities from the Georgian government. He is sure that Georgian authorities will take all appropriate measures to punish the perpetrators.

On the other side, Father Davit (Sharashenidze) denies that facts of vandalism occurred and states that in fact the situation is completely different. He thinks this is artificially created problem that has not connection with the reality.

Fatehr Davit (Sharashenidze): “In the past it was rubbish damp and a shelter for tramps. Today, this place is clean and by the way, no stone was removed from there.”

“There is Georgian church also lies within the yard. This fence belongs to the Orthodox Church and it is natural that there are Georgian crosses on the fence because we are in Georgia. Thousands of lawless events have happened in the yard but Armenian side has never complained about such deeds. Since Georgian side started to arrange a square there and planted trees and paved the streets, they started to complain. If this church will be transferred to the Armenian Church it will be decorated at least.”

Davit Sharashenidze denies the claiming of Avagiani who said that grave stones were brought to the yard several years ago. Sharashenidze said that these stones have always been there and there are graves under them.

As for the door of the church it was nailed shut by the government.

Father Davit (Sharashenidze): “This is disputable church. There are remains of Georgian religious symbols there as well. Until we can finally decide which side this church belong to, the current situation will not change. Historians must be settled this matter. As far as I know, Georgian patriarchate and Armenian delegation have had some negotiations. There are several churches in Armenia that belong to Georgian Orthodox Church. We have almost the same kind of complaints with Armenian Church as they have with us. There are Georgian churches in Armenia that were changed and transformed by Armenian Catholics. Georgian side complained about it but nobody paid attention to their complaints from Armenian side. Then they started argument about Norasheni.”

Expert Nugzar Papuashvili stated that the controversy between two churches might turn into the conflict between the countries.

Nugzar Papuashvili: “At this stage similar activities are nothing more but provocation. I do not know whether the initiators of the activities are aware what they are in fact doing.  Anyway, the result might turn out extremely bad. In addition, there is no legal basis for this initiative. The church building belongs to the state and not to any church. However, historical links of this church belong to Armenians. They say it was Orthodox Church in the past. It should be investigated because nothing is excluded. However, it is fact that when Georgia was occupied by Soviet Union and they started to close down churches, this particular church belonged to the Armenian Church. In addition, it is constructed in an Armenian style.

The logic is the following: since Norasheni Church is in the yard of Georgian Orthodox Church and it is claimed that no other church should be in the yard of the Orthodox Church, Norasheni Church should also belong to us. Although the Georgian Patriarchate hinders the process, Tariel Sikinchelashvili, the initiator, is a clergyman and consequently under his charge. In the end it is the Patriarchate that is responsible for his activities. This situation in fact started since April 9 1989 (day of National Movement in Georgia when about 20 young demonstrators were killed by Russian troops in Tbilisi). Georgian authority then occupied churches that previously belonged to various religious affirmations in Georgia.

There is similar stigma facing many in Georgian society: Who is not Orthodox is considered an enemy of national interests.”

Father Davit (Sharashenidze) states that there is no tension between Georgian and Armenian churches. Just the opposite they have perfect relationships.

Father Davit: “Armenian Catholicos Garegin visited Georgia and after that Georgian Patriarch visited Armenia too. Such kinds of problems should not impact on relation between the two religions.”

St. Norasheni is not the only disputable church in Tbilisi. There are other five churches in the capital that do not have a clear owner as yet. The commission that was set up to resolve this problem is not yet functioning. While the problem cannot be resolved  without active work and to carefully consider the interests of both parts of the controversy.

2008 11 29

Категория: Вопрос Норашена | Добавил: tiflis (30.11.2008)
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