Blazing Reaction: Latest fire at Armenian church in Georgia raises more questions in old dispute

Blazing Reaction: Latest fire at Armenian church in Georgia raises more questions in old dispute


The collapse of another Armenian church in Tbilisi has raised more questions regarding the state of conservation of Armenian cultural legacy in Georgia.

A major fire reportedly broke out at Surb Nshan Church in Tbilisi on Monday, with firefighting resulting in the collapse of the church’s southeastern part.

The church built in the early 18th century is one of the six churches in Tbilisi that are a subject of dispute between the Armenian Apostolic and Georgian Orthodox churches. A fire in this church also occurred in 2002.

The Mother See of Holy Echmiadzin on Thursday issued a statement with a strong reaction. The Supreme Spiritual Council, the highest executive body of the Armenian Church, said it had discussed the issue at its meeting and stated its ‘deep concern’ considering ‘the precedents of the collapses of the Shamkhoretsots Karmir Avetaran and Moghnetsots Surb Gevorg churches’.

The Supreme Spiritual Council reminded that during the visit last June of His Holiness Karekin II, the Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians, to Georgia, at the meetings with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and Georgian Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II the Armenian side got assurances that proper care and attitude would be shown towards the remaining Armenian churches in Georgia – whether collapsed ones or those standing but on the verge of collapse.

“In spite of the alarms sounded by the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin and the Armenian diocese of Georgia, the Georgian side’s neglect and delay in solving the urgent problems has, unfortunately, confronted us with this sad situation,” it said.

The Supreme Spiritual Council called upon the Georgian authorities “to take immediate steps to save the Surb Nshan Church from destruction, to pursue the cause of preserving and taking good care of the Armenian sacred places that are part of the cultural heritage of Georgia, and to grant the request of the Georgian Armenians for the return of the demanded Armenian churches.”

On January 11, Armenia’s Ministry of Culture dispatched a group of experts led by the head of the Cultural-Historical Monuments Protection Agency Serzhik Arakelyan, to Tbilisi to learn more details about the fire and discuss plans of further joint work with Georgian counterparts on the spot.

In an interview with ArmeniaNow, Ministry of Culture spokesperson Gayane Durgaryan said that the Armenian group would return to Yerevan later on Friday.

“We will make a conclusion based on the study report presented by the group after its return, but according to the preliminary information, an arrangement has been made with the Georgian Ministry of Culture that, if necessary, urgent work will be done to reinforce the southeastern pillar of the church,” said Durgaryan.

Meanwhile, Samvel Karapetyan, a leading Armenian researcher of monuments, says he has little expectations of action from the Georgian side.

Talking to ArmeniaNow, Karapetyan, who heads the Research on Armenian Architecture NGO, said a friend of his who lives in Tbilisi and keeps him updated on the state of the churches by regularly sending information and photographs told him a fire occurred in the same church also on January 2. The source suggested, based on inquiries from people living near the church, that the fire could have been started by drug addicts, who have used the inactive church’s premises for shelter, and later could have gotten out of control.

“But it [the source] also writes that the altar of the church that saw archeological examinations only a few months ago was damaged by the fire, which raises our friend’s suspicions [about possible arson],” said Karapetyan.

The Armenian expert cited the example of the 2009 fire at the Mughnetsots Surb Gevorg Church when the Georgian media wrote that the blaze was started because of a cigarette thrown by a drunken Russian [anti-Russian sentiments were still considerably strong in Georgia then, in the wake of an armed conflict in South Ossetia in August 2008].

Karapetyan also suggested that the Georgian side had not lived up to its promises for the church to be restored at least by the following year.

“Three years have passed since then and today suggestions are being made in the Georgian press that the three remaining walls of the Mughnetsots Surb Gevorg Church be pulled down because they pose a risk to passers-by,” said Karapetyan. “I view this within the general context of the Georgian program to cleanse the Armenian monuments.”