Crisis of Faith: Armenian identity threatened in Tbilisi

The Supreme Body of the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin is going to call an emergency consultation on the “Georgianization” of the Armenian Surb Norashen Church in Tbilisi, Karen Elchyan, Chairman of the Armenian Center of Cooperation of Georgia, said on May 19. According to him, the Armenian community of Georgia is ready to act, however it is still waiting for the decision of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

As Elchyan said, the problem with Armenian churches in Georgia is not new, however this question is always frozen. “They made us keep silent promising that the problem would be solved. We did not protest when the pavilion and orchards were being destroyed, but today the Armenian church is being encircled with a concrete fence on the pillars of which there are Georgian crosses.”

In recent days Tbilisi has witnessed the start of the last stage of “Georgianization” of the Armenian Norashen church situated in one of the old areas of the city in Leselidze Street (formerly Armenian Bazaar), in the same yard with the Georgian (former Greek) Orthodox “Jvris Mamis Monastery” Church.

Beginning on May 15, a group of workers led by Georgian Orthodox Church priest Fr. Tariel Sikinchelashvili, the prior of the neighboring church, have actively constructed a concrete-metal fence with wicket-gates from the rear part of the church thus building on and completing the fence along the whole perimeter of the church. In doing so, they use all kinds of Georgian symbolism in the form of the Georgian cross. According to Fr. Tariel, “Georgian liturgy in the church will start no later than in a month after all interior repairs inside the building itself finish.”

Tombstones with Georgian inscriptions suddenly appeared in the yard of this church still in 2005. Soon, the tombstones were neatly arranged in the immediate proximity of the church walls. At the same time, Armenian tombstones situated on the other side of the church became targets of vandalism as Armenian inscriptions were blotted out from them.

It was then that the Georgian priest Tariel said: “The land is ours, the church is ours and we do whatever we want and what we are told to do, and in general leave us alone, we are tried of you…”

It was in 2005 that the Georgian Times newspaper (24.02.2005) published an article replete with phrases like: “Armenians do everything for Georgia to fail as a state”, “Had Armenians had enough funds, they would have taken our language from us”, “I cannot remember a case when an Armenian did good to Georgia”, etc.

The anti-Armenian hysteria raised by Georgian media around the Norashen church had as its consequence the following paragraph in the US State Department global report (November 8, 2005) on the state of religious freedom concerning Georgia:

“Many problems among traditional religious groups stem from property disputes. The Roman Catholic and Armenian Apostolic Churches have been unable to secure the return of their churches and other facilities that were closed during the Soviet period, many of which later were given to the GOC by the State. The prominent Armenian church in Tbilisi, Norashen, remains closed, as do four other smaller Armenian churches in Tbilisi and one in Akhaltsikhe.”

An excerpt from the report of Georgia’s Ombudsman presented to the country’s parliament on December 23, 2005 is noteworthy in this regard:

“At this stage the Diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Georgia is raising in a most radical way the issue of the return of the Norashen church in Tbilisi and Surb Nshan church in Akhaltsikh… The issue of Norashen church is particularly urgent. Before the Soviet period the church belonged to the Armenian Apostolic Church.

In the Soviet period it housed a science academy library. On February 15, 1995, by the decision of the Patriarchy, the church was consecrated as “Our Lady Good News” church in which an orthodox liturgy was performed, to which the Armenian side expressed its protest. The Georgian Patriarchy had to leave the church, but it did not let the Armenian Church have it. Norashen church does not operate today.”

The problem with Norashen church is known since 1989. It was then that upon the initiative of the future first president of the republic, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, Georgians intensified and expanded their activities towards this church for the purpose of turning it into a Georgian Orthodox church.
The culmination of the activities was in 1994 when unrest started among Armenians after there was news about all major books having been removed from the church archives.
The latest events show that Norashen may suffer the fate similar to that of another Armenian church – Karmir Avetaran, which once was the tallest (40 meters) Armenian church of Tbilisi until it was destroyed in 1989.
Elchyan said recently that “a solution to the church issue is the issue of the future existence of the community.”

“Ignoring this problem will put the community in a very unenviable situation. We need to feel we are not alone, however nothing has been done in this direction yet,” Elchyan said.

The organization’s chairman also made a supposition that Surb Norashen church is likely to have already been ceded to the Georgian side, simply they don’t publicize the matter. “Apparently, they wanted to settle everything quietly, however they will have to do something after we’ve raised the noise.”

“The encroachment of the Georgian leadership on another Armenian church, Norashen, once again proves official Tbilisi’s hostility not only to the Armenian state, but also the Armenian people, their entho-culture and religious monuments on the whole,” political analyst Hrant Melik-Shahnazaryan said.

“The loss of the Armenian Norashen church will unequivocally lead to the loss of the Armenian community of Tbilisi,” he said. “And it will be followed by the ultimate degradation and de-ethnization of Samtskhe-Javakheti. We hope that [Supreme Patriarch] Karekin II will show himself as a genuine Catholicos of All Armenians and will not leave Tbilisi Armenians cheated and abandoned in their struggle.”

Some observers think long-term prospects of Armenian-Georgian relations may be outlined as early as next week.