Fire-Damaged Tbilisi Church in Ownership Row
|Publisher||Institute for War and Peace Reporting|
|Author||Arpi Harutyunyan, Fati Mamiashvili|
|Publication Date||6 February 2012|
|Citation / Document Symbol||CRS Issue 628|
|Cite as||Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Fire-Damaged Tbilisi Church in Ownership Row, 6 February 2012, CRS Issue 628, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4f3379ee2.html [accessed 25 May 2013]|
|Disclaimer||This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.|
A fire that gutted an Armenian church in Tbilisi has revived a festering dispute over the ownership of churches in Georgia.
When a fire broke out on January 9 at the church, called Surb Nshan, or Holy Sign, by Armenians, and the Church of St Nicholas by the Georgian patriarchate, the emergency services failed to get it under control, and the roof collapsed.
The church, which dates to 1701, has not functioned as a place of worship since Soviet times, and has remained in a semi-derelict state, in use as a manuscript store, despite requests for it to be returned to the control of the Armenian Apostolic Church.
A fire in 2003 burned many of the books, and Armenians say the Georgian authorities' failure to learn the lessons symbolises the scant attention paid to their faith.
"Nine years ago, despite our appeals to the police, no one established the cause of the fire. We don't expect anything to change now," said Armen Agadjanov, a representative of the Armenian community in Georgia.
Although both Georgians and Armenians are ancient Christian nations, they practice different versions of the faith. Georgians are part of the Orthodox Church, like the Greeks and Russians. The Armenian Apostolic Church, meanwhile, is a separate and unique institution.
There have been Armenians living in Tbilisi for centuries, but they only have two functioning churches there now, out of 41 that existed in the city before the 1917 Russian Revolution. They would like to regain control of five others, including Surb Nshan/St Nicholas.
Under Soviet rule, all forms of religion were suppressed by the atheist regime, but Armenians say they suffered doubly as Georgians quietly discriminated against their faith.
Samvel Karapetyan, who heads Research on Armenian Architecture, a foundation campaigning for the protection of old buildings, said things got worse with the rise of Georgian nationalism in the late 1980s.
"In 1988 and 1989, a new wave of attacks on Armenian churches started. Armenian historical treasures were stolen under the pretext of restoration. Many of the churches were reconsecrated as Georgian, while others were simply knocked down," he said.
After the fire this January, the culture ministry in Armenian sent a delegation to Georgia. Culture Minister Hasmik Poghosyan said the blaze was started by fireworks set off ahead of the Orthodox new year, marked on January 14.
Poghosyan urged the Georgian authorities to set about restoring the church as soon as possible.
Georgia's National Agency for the Protection of Cultural Heritage, part of the culture ministry, said restoration work would start this spring.
"Even before the Armenian delegation's visit, a project had been drafted to renovate the church," agency spokeswoman Natii Murachashvili said, adding that the fire service had been very careful and had deliberately not used water to avoid causing further damage.
Karapetyan said he would believe pledges to restore the church when they were carried out.
He cited the case of the Church of St Gevorg (St George), also in Tbilisi, which collapsed in 2009. (For a report on the incident, see Georgia: Collapse of Armenian Church Provokes Row.)
"The Georgians promised to restore it, but three years have gone by and nothing has been done. I believe the church of Surb Nshan will share the same fate," he said.
Hakob Simonyan, director of the research centre for cultural heritage under Armenia's culture ministry, points to a lack of coordination and agreement on who should take care of the Armenian Apostolic churches located in Georgia.
"We don't have a clear picture of the condition of the Armenian churches in Georgia. We'd need to carry out comprehensive monitoring to get that, and we're unable to do that because there is no inter-government agreement," he said. "We have offered to carry out the work jointly on several occasions, but we realised they weren't terrible interested. It has to happen at government level. We can't start the work in secret, like thieves in the night."
Last June, Catholicos Karekin, the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, met Georgian Orthodox Patriarch Ilia to raise two issues – his church's legal status in Georgia, including the creation of a diocese there, and the return of church premises.
Armenian church spokesman Father Vahram Melikyan said some progress had been made.
"In legal terms, we have already taken a step in this direction, and the diocese is already in the process of being registered," he said. "We are currently asking for five churches in Tbilisi and one in Akhaltsikhe to be returned to us. The real number of Armenian churches is significantly higher than that, but we want to recover at least a few in order to meet the Armenian community's spiritual needs."
In a statement, the Georgian Orthodox Patriarchate said the first priority was to restore the church of Surb Nshan/St Nicholas. Only then could discussions take place about who it properly belonged to; these would involve the Armenian community as well as Georgian church leaders, the statement said.
Karapetyan cautioned against taking such promises at face value.
"It suits them to destroy traces of the Armenian past," he said. "If we want to bring our monuments under our own protection, then we need to press our demands through the law and go to court to regain our historical heritage."