Renovation or destruction?: Conflicting reports on an Armenian Catholic church in Georgia

Renovation or destruction?: Conflicting reports on an Armenian Catholic church in Georgia

Conflicting reports have been made lately in Armenia about the fate of a seventh-century Armenian Catholic church in Akhaltsikhe, in the Armenian-populated province of Georgia.

While the Armenian Catholic Church and nongovernmental organizations raising the issue of the church say that yet another Armenian church is being destroyed in Georgia, the Georgian-Armenian Diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church insists that “small khachkars (cross stones) and Armenian inscriptions have been moved for the needs of research being conducted ahead of repairs.”

The Mitq Analytical Center last week disseminated information about Sourb Khach (Holy Cross) Church, saying in a statement that Georgian religious leadership and state bodies responsible for the preservation of monuments are planning to knock down the church in Akhaltsikhe (or Akhaltskha, the administrative center of Georgia’s Armenian-populated Samtskhe-Javakheti province) and build a Georgian Catholic church in its place.

The center quoted Armenian priest in Akhaltsikhe Ter Manouk Zeinalian as testifying to the ongoing destruction of the church. According to the release of the center, Father Zeinalian said: “One of the altars has been destroyed and four stones with Armenian inscriptions have been unearthed from underneath. One of the stones has disappeared. One of the arches has been destroyed too. Armenians of Akhaltsikhe are demanding that the process be halted. It’s an Armenian church and belongs to Armenians.”

Monuments expert in Armenia Samvel Karapetyan also says that in the first half of the 19th century the church originally built as an apostolic house of worship, was passed to the Armenian Catholic community. According to him, the Armenian traces are all over that church – khachkars, a medieval cemetery with Armenian inscriptions in the surroundings of the church, etc.

Karapetyan says that according to the information he has, cleaning work is still in progress in the church, because of which khachkars set in the church walls have already been taken out.

“This is another victim, another church ‘under restoration’ in Akhaltsikhe,” says Karapetyan. He adds that there are no khachkars or Armenian inscriptions left in any of the churches that have been re-appropriated in Georgia and that there is nothing that could remind of the rightful owner.

The Georgian Diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church, meanwhile, told ArmeniaNow that a few months ago the church was transferred to the Roman Catholic Church, which also pledged to renovate the non-functioning church.

“Certain khachkars have been shifted for research purposes, but they are to be placed back to where they were. The Catholic Church of Georgia assures us that no inscription or khachkar will be damaged as a result of the repairs,” said a representative the Armenian Apostolic Church’s Georgian Diocese, adding that some local Armenian youths who witnessed specialists work on the site erroneously thought that the church was being knocked down, while in actual fact it is not so.

Despite these assurances, spiritual leader of the Armenian Catholic Church in Yerevan Fr. Petros Yesayan is perplexed at how an Armenian catholic church could be handed over to the Roman Catholic Church if it already belonged to the latter.

“The Georgians are destroying the church. They will erase whatever is Armenian,” says Fr. Petros.

The Armenian Foreign Ministry also has information only about cleaning work being carried out at the church in Georgia.

“We don’t have information about khachkars being taken out of the walls. At least we’ve got assurances from the Georgian embassy that the church will not be damaged,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Tigran Balayan told ArmeniaNow.