Tensions in Armenian-Georgian Church relations

H.H. Catholicos Karekin II of Etchmiadzin paid an official visit to the Georgian Orthodox Church in June 2011, the first visit of an Armenian Catholicos to Georgia since 1894. His visit was intended to improve relations between the Churches of the neighbouring Caucasus Republics, both Orthodox but one belonging to the Eastern Orthodox family and the other to the Oriental. There are some 171,00 Armenians living in Georgia, notably the province of Samtskhe‐Javakheti, which borders on Armenia and the old Armenian provinces of Turkey. Catholicios Karekin also sought the return of several ancient Armenian churches, which were closed in the 1930s under the Soviets but not returned after independence. Notable among these are the Soorp Narashan Church, built in the mid eleventh century, which is being used by the Georgia Orthodox Church as part of a policy of “Georgianisation” of Armenian Churches. Other churches (like the Karmir Anetaran Church, with its 40 metre high spire) have either been destroyed or allowed to fall into disrepair.

Despite attempts to appear cordial, Catholicos Karekin was unable to obtain any agreement or even the signing of the usual joint declaration with H.H. Catholicos-Patriarch Ilya II, who insisted that any agreement over the return of churches would need to have a quid pro quo for the buildings in Armenia which the Georgian Church claimed as theirs. The situation was not improved by Catholicos Ilya saying “Karekin is young and apparently lacks experience,” and observing, “He is intelligent but wants to do things quickly, which will not work. I told him that I have a 30-year experience and that staying calm is the best thing.” A few months earlier the Deputy Minister of Reintegration, Yelena Tevdoradze, had told an Armenian audience that the Armenian Apostolic Church “will never be granted an official status” and “will only be a so-called branch in Georgia …I repeat, we will not recognize the Church of Echmiadzin,”
However, less than a month later, on 5 July 2011 the Georgian parliament approved amendmentsto Georgia’s Civil Code granting legal status to “those faiths that are considered legal religions by member countries of the European Council” enabling them to register as full-fledged religious organizations. Previously, such groups were only able to register as charities or non-government organizations. The five religious minorities covered by these amendments were the Roman Catholic Church (0.8%), the Evangelical Baptists (0.1%), the Muslims (9.9%), the Jews (0.1%) and the Armenian Apostolic Church (3.9%).

Unfortunately this eirenic measure by the government was not well-received by some members of the Georgian Orthodox Church (83.9%), who are hostile to Armenians, both on religious and ethnic grounds. Thousands of people took to the streets of Tbilisi carrying Georgian icons and flags, to protest at the parliamentary resolution, which they viewed as pro-Armenian and complaining against “anti-Orthodox forces”. Catholicos Ilya II urged President Mikheil Saakashvili to veto the law and to organize additional discussions.

Protests were halted only after a strict order was given by the mayor of Tbilisi and, most importantly, certain revisions had been made by Georgian lawmakers in the Civil Code that essentially reduced the former broad powers granted to religious organizations. The Georgian Holy Synod, which met on 12 July, called for calm and urged parliament in future to discuss with the Patriarchate draft legislation related to religion so as “to avoid any possible complications.” President Mikheil Saakashvili attended a liturgy conducted by Catholicos Ilya II at Svetitskhoveli Cathedral the following day, publicly showing that church-state relations had improved.

Of the estimated more than 300 Armenian churches situated in the territory of Georgia only 40 of these are functioning churches. In the capital Tbilisi only two of six Armenian churches function, while two are in ruins and the other have been taken over by the Georgians. The Armenians, however, demands that they be returned. By having the status of a legal entity in public law it is feared that the Armenians will possess greater opportunities for settling property demands.

Vide: UN Country of Origin Report, Religious Minorities in Georgia (December 2006).

Glastonbury Review Issue: 120, July 2011

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