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Modern condition of the Armenian Apostolic Church Diocese in Georgia
Georgia is a country in which a plethora of ethnic and confessional groups peacefully coexisted, exercising friendship and tolerance, throughout many centuries. One would find no difficulty in describing Georgia, and particularly its capital, Tbilisi, as very positive in terms of interconfessional relations.

One of the greatest manifestations of such peacefully respectful attitude found in Georgia is the Leselidze street in Tbilisi where side by side stand a Georgian Orthodox, a Roman Catholic and an Armenian Apostolic churches, a Jewish synagogue and a Moslem mosque.

It should be noted that the Armenians, though well integrated into Georgian society, have always comprised a significant part of its population, for which there are many historical, geographical and other reasons. It is no secret that the Armenians have overwhelmingly contributed to building Georgia’s modern capital, Tbilisi, and had a very important role to play in terms of Georgia’s national self-determination.

The Armenian Apostolic church is an inseparable part of the Armenian people. The Church in Georgia has always preached love towards God inseparable from love of ancestral homeland and high regard of Georgia.

According to historical materials the Armenian church in Georgia has been a recognized separate religious entity since 5th century AD. One of major Armenian medieval historians, Oukhtannes, reports that in the 5th century, in the Georgian town of Tsurtavi, there was an Armenian prelacy under the jurisdiction of the Armenian Patriarch, led by a bishop called Movses.

Another historian, Matheos of Urkha, reports that during the reign of Georgia’s king David IV the Builder Armenian church in Georgia was officially granted status of a recognized diocese. St. George’s (Surb Kevork) Armenian Cathedral of Tbilisi was then its administrative centre.

During fifteen centuries of Armenian ecclesiastical presence in Georgia over six hundred religious and cultural sites, namely churches, seminaries, monasteries, were created by members of the Armenian Church. A portion of these sites is now non-existent due to natural disasters, vandalism, and other factors.

Given all the positive history, nevertheless today Armenian Church experiences difficulties, the first and foremost of which is the lack of any status officially recognized by Georgian legislation. The diocese has repeatedly addressed the Government of Georgia for assistance in finding solution to this problem, e.g. by passing a law on religion, which was an obligation Georgia took upon itself upon her accession into membership in the Council of Europe. Georgian church authorities’ public promises to assist the Armenian Diocese regarding gaining an official status also failed to bring any resolution to its current condition.

The solution of the many issues that worry the Armenian Diocese in Georgia, including reclaiming rights to ownership of historical Armenian churches, is directly connected with determination of the status of Armenian Church in Georgia. The Georgian Orthodox Church officials underline this link anytime they have to deal with the matter of passing several Armenian Church buildings back into domain of the Armenian diocese.

The Armenian diocese in Georgia would like to remind the Government of Georgia that her requests are based on the needs of the Georgian citizens that are also members of the Armenian Apostolic church. Georgian Constitution and her international obligations create sufficient basis for government officials to exercise political will and offer solutions to these longstanding painful matters.

The religious climate of Georgia is, unfortunately, becoming increasingly discriminatory.

Today’s legislation of Georgia is inapt for solving difficulties that the Armenian Diocese has to face on the daily basis. The view of the Diocese is that only a full-scale agreement with the Georgian government could solve the problem within current legislation. Such agreement should, for instance, determine judicial status of the Armenian Church in Georgia.

Another matter of utter importance to the Armenian Church is the issue of ownership of the Armenian temples, built by Armenian Apostolic Church, unto which the Armenian Church had full rights up to the Soviet period of Georgia’s history. Communist government of the Soviet Union has nationalized Armenian temples but after restoration of Georgian sovereignty the temples haven’t been returned to their lawful owners.

Georgian scientific establishment corporately with mass-media periodically launch anti-Armenian campaigns in press and television. One example of such discriminatory and illogical attitude is the reaction of press to the Armenian Diocese’s publication of the fact of existence over six hundred Armenian Christian sites in Georgia throughout the history of Armenian presence in Georgia. Georgian public was misled by media accusations of the Armenian Church of demanding six hundred temples’ rights of ownership. In fact, the Armenian Church has never demanded six hundred churches back into its domain, and it is a very much regrettable fact that the Georgian public was misled by public-financed media institutes.

Armenian Church does indeed request to repossess the ownership rights over six, not six hundred, Armenian temples. Five of these temples are in the city of Tbilisi and the remaining one is in the town of Akaltsikhe of Samtskhe-Javakheti, a region with a majority Armenian population.

These churches are: “Norashen”, “Surb Nshan”, “Shamkhoretsots Surb Astuadzatsin”, “Mughno Surb Gevorg”, “Surb Minas” in Tbilisi, and another “Surb Nshan” church in Akhaltsikhe. All these churches, that served the Armenian community for centuries, are today shut and made no use of whatsoever by any denomination.

The condition of these churches is appalling. Especially worrying is the condition of the church “Surb Nshan” of Tbilisi which was almost entirely burnt from the inside in 2002 by an excessive fire. Nobody’s bothered to at least clean-up the rubbish which till present defiles the church! This church was built in the year of 1701 and is listed as cultural heritage site of Georgia! As is the custom in Georgia, the government doesn’t pay any attention to the condition of the building.

There is another issue that requires serious attention. It is very common in Georgia to hear from all sorts of officials that the Armenian churches are actually ‘disputed’ as in to which denomination they belong. There should be, they suggest, a special committee that will determine historic ownership of these churches. But in fact, all Armenian churches are marked by several features, only found in Armenian ecclesiastical architecture. All Armenian churches, including so-called ‘disputed’ churches of Georgia, have their altars at a particular height, determined by the Armenian Church canon. Georgian church altars are at all times built at a much lower level than the Armenian altars. Also Armenian baptisteries are always found in a northern niche of any Armenian church. These features are not found in any other architecture tradition apart from Armenian. All ‘disputed’ churches are marked by these features.

These facts bear witness enough for persuasion of any objective observer, but not the Georgian political and religious authorities.

As well as the features mentioned, there are multiple inscriptions, frescoes and gravestones that clearly demonstrate Armenian origins of these churches.

US Department of State has touched on the issue of ownership of historical Armenian churches in Georgia in report released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor in 2005. It states:

‘The Roman Catholic and Armenian Apostolic Churches have been unable to secure the return of churches and other facilities closed during the Soviet period, many of which later were given to the Georgian Orthodox Church by the State. The prominent Armenian Church in Tbilisi, Norashen, remained closed, as did four other smaller Armenian churches in Tbilisi and one in Akhaltsikhe. In addition, the Roman Catholic and Armenian Apostolic Churches, as with Protestant denominations, have had difficulty obtaining permission to construct new churches due to pressure from the GOC’.

This quotation from the US State Department supports the above statements.

In regard to this issue, Georgia’s Ombudsman’s report to the Parliament of Georgia from December 23rd, 2005 is also interesting. Georgian Ombudsman said:

“At this point, the Armenian Apostolic Church diocese in Georgia raises most sharply the issue of re-obtaining rights over Norashen church in Tbilisi and Surb Nshan church in Akhaltsikhe. Patriarchy (Georgian) declares that a committee to establish rights over these churches may only be called after adoption of the law on religious bodies in Georgia, which, in its turn, was already dismissed by Georgian Parliament. The Government of Georgia takes the position of Georgian Patriarchy into consideration and therefore cannot decide whether to return the churches to their historical owners. Thus, actions, statements and requests of the Catholic and Armenian Apostolic Churches, and also recommendations of the Public Defender of Georgia have not brought forth any results.

The issue of the Norashen church is particularly sharp. Before Soviet times, the church used to belong to the Armenian Apostolic church. During Soviet period the church has been used to hold the Academy of Science Library. On the 25th of February, 1995, Georgian Patriarchy decided to christen the church according to Georgian Orthodox rite and a Georgian liturgy was held, to which the Armenian church objected by stating a protest. Georgian Patriarchy was forced to leave the church, but it did not transfer it back to the Armenian Apostolic Church. Today the Norashen church is not being used.”

Thus, one of the most prominent problems is the issue of returning the Armenian churches that are now closed and without use. Prompt solutions to the problems of the Diocese are vital for its efficiency in its work for the benefit of the Armenian Christians in Georgia.

Because the solution of these issues, particularly definition of the status of the Armenian Apostolic church Diocese and the return of Armenian churches into domain of the Armenian Apostolic Church, is entirely within competence of the Government of Georgia, the Armenian Apostolic Church in Georgia calls on the Government for prompt action on definition of the status of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Georgia and returning six Armenian churches to the Armenian Diocese.

Armenian Apostolic Holy Church has always enjoyed good relations with the Georgian Orthodox Church and Georgian people.


Levon Isakhanyan
Assistant to the Head of the Diocese Armenian Apostolic Holy Church in Georgia
Vice-president of Armenian Centre of Cooperation of Georgia (http://www.armenia.ge)
2008 03 26
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