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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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.
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