Controversy under Cupola: Attempts to defend Armenian churches in Georgia meet protests in Tbilisi

The past weekend saw numerous statements by various public figures and parliamentarians in Armenia on the prospects of the development of Armenian-Georgian relations.

The activation had been provoked by an unprecedented event – an anti-Armenian action was held in front of the embassy of Armenia in Tbilisi on December 11. The participants of that rally demanded that “10 churches in the north of Armenia should be handed over to the Georgian Orthodox Church.”

A fundamental change in the Armenian-Georgian relations became evident still last month.

On November 18, official Yerevan for the first time sent a note of protest to Georgian authorities, an unprecedented event in the modern history of bilateral relations between the two neighbors.

The official note of protest from Yerevan was a response to a new encroachment on an Armenian church in Tbilisi when on November 16, controversial Georgian priest Tariel Sikinchelashvili organized works in the territory of Surb Norashen with the aid of excavators allegedly for “cleaning the land under the tombstones and around them.” As a result of the operations, the tombstones of Armenian patrons of art of Tbilisi buried in the churchyard were removed.

Such an attitude of Tbilisi authorities to Armenian churches is not rare.

Only two of the 29 Armenian churches in Tbilisi (from the beginning of the 20th century) function today (Surb Gevorg and Surb Etchmiadzin), while the rest were either destroyed or turned into Georgian ones.

Some tend to consider the fact that official Yerevan sent a note of protest to Tbilisi only in November within the context of the consequences of the five-day war between Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia in August. Others, however, believe this step of the Armenian leadership is not accidental and is very symptomatic.

“After Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the Georgian side should be wiser and shun attempts to misappropriate elements of other peoples’ identities,” said Stepan Safaryan, a lawmaker representing Armenia’s opposition Heritage party.

‘The Georgian side does not recognize the affiliation of the Armenian churches and is calling for a commission to be set up to consider the issue of the churches’ affiliation. We see a similar attitude from Turks who seek the establishment of a panel of historians on the genocide issue,” says Shirak Torosyan, a parliament member from the governing Republican Party of Armenia.

It is obvious that the coming year will become a time of clarification of many disputable issues in bilateral relations. It is already clear now that the “church controversy” is only the tip of an iceberg in Armenian-Georgian contradictions.