Armenians of Tbilisi Can’t Even Light Candles

“We want to enter the Norashen Church to light candles, that’s our right, no?” says Mikayel Davtyan, an Armenian from Tiflis. “Every Sunday we go to the Norashen courtyard, it’s a meeting place for Armenians. Why can’t we go inside and light candles?”

The Holy Mother of God Church in Norashen is one of the churches “in question”. It is presently closed while the courtyard serves as a gathering place for local Armenians. Armenians of Tiflis have accepted this development quite painfully given that a solution to the status of the Armenian Church in Georgia and the question of handing over the five Armenian churches in Tiflis to the Armenian Apostolic Diocese had been dragging on for years.

The Georgian Armenian community believes that a final resolution of the matter requires resolve in demanding that the Georgian authorities legalize the status of the churches and the Armenian Diocese according to international obligations that the Georgian authorities themselves have assumed.

Karen Elchyan, President of the Armenian Cooperation Center of Georgia (ACCG) says his organization has sent letters of protest to the local Diocese and to Etchmiadzin criticizing their lax attitude. He says they have also sent letters personally addressed to Catholicos Karekin II and the Georgian Cultural Minister calling for a halt to the illegal actions taking place at Norashen and to resolve the issue of the other churches.

According to Elchyan, their requests for action have been met with contempt, with the Catholicos basically saying “congratulations for being so active; work with your local Primate and we’ll resolve all existing problems.”

Meanwhile, the Georgian Cultural Ministry responded by saying that the matter had to be taken to higher authorities since they couldn’t handle such a serious issue, Elchyan said.

“Given that this is the second time this year we have raised the matter of the same church and we only receive a negative follow-up by the Armenian Apostolic Church, the label of ‘provocateur’ and merely countless promises by Armenians government, we are resigned to wait for more concrete actions,” he said. “Again, we will wait and see what transpires but at the same time we are drafting more serious lines of action.”

An Armenian from Tiflis who wished to remain anonymous described the fencing of Norashen in May. “Every Sunday I go to the church courtyard. The people assembled were quite annoyed and were waiting for the Primate to say something but all he said was %u218if you need the Norashen church go and fight for it’.”

“How can we go and fight?” the person said. “We don’t have good diplomatic or spiritual leaders. And our parliamentary delegates are delegates in name only; what can we expect from them. In the end, what has changed in Georgia that they’re all so afraid. We must stubbornly put up a fight to be able to enter the church. At the end of the day will we go in or not?”

Shirak Torosyan, a Deputy in the Republican Party faction and President of the “Javakhk” Patriotic Union sees the position of his Tiflis Armenian colleagues as logical and believes that it stems from the system created in Georgia.

According to him, it’s not very realistic to expect any change in the situation given the current situation in Georgia.

“They tried to intervene in the recent incidents, to quickly settle the matter so that the noise doesn’t reach the ears of the international public; so that the voice of Armenians isn’t heard,” Torosyan said. “This also doesn’t correspond to the interests of the more influential individuals in the Tiflis Armenian community. You either have to be a parliamentary deputy or not.”

Van Baybourtyan, an advisor to the Georgian president and Vice President of the Armenian Union of Georgia, informed the “GHN” news service that he had already witnessed, for the fourth time, the promise of Georgian clergyman Father Tariel to get permission of the Georgian Armenian Diocese before conducting any of his initiatives.

But Baybourtyan is still convinced that Father Tariel is solely conducting improvement work.

“Father Tariel has declared that he works for the well-being of the church and that he is actually merely improving the flower bushes in the Norashen courtyard and repairing the fence near the western entrance.” Baybourtyan said, stressing that Father Tariel voluntarily placed a symbol unique to the Georgian Church on the fence. “Father Tariel conducted all that work without the written consent of either the Georgian Patriarchate or the Municipality of Tbilisi.”

Artyom Grigoryan, the head of the Monuments Preservation Division of the Armenian Ministry of Culture, states that they usually send letters but receive no responses. On the occasion of the recent incident, the Vice Minister of Culture, who is also the President of the ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites) branch in Armenia, petitioned the President of ICOMOS in Georgia.

Grigoryan confirms that his office cannot intervene in the matter since it is still not clear whether the Norashen church is registered in the list of Georgian historic-cultural monuments or not. During an international conference held in Tbilisi in 2003 they attempted to carry on talks and obtain the Georgian registry of historical-cultural monuments. Despite the many promises they received that such lists would be made available, nothing was ever handed over. They have not yet attempted to make such a demand in writing.

“I can assume that it is the hidden intention to gradually erase all Armenian traces in Georgia, something that is possible if there is government involvement,” Grigoryan said. “It is also possible that the people do it spontaneously as well. This manifestation has deep and serious roots. We all know that Armenians had a great contribution in the creation of the city of Tbilisi and this probably causes some complexes within the authorities and people of Georgia.”

He said that the manifestation of the destruction of monuments doesn’t only take place in Georgia and that it often occurs on a political basis.

According to Grigoryan, such occurrences cannot be stopped by writing one letter because if a given country has set such a policy it will be realized, sooner or later. He is convinced that the Georgians don’t include well-known monumen’s in their registry because they’d have to assume responsibility for them if they did so.

“We must establish relations and foster goodwill on their part and calm their fears that such things do not pose a threat and are only historical realities and the result of the coexistence of the two peoples, nothing more.”

The only possible solution, he added, is to pressure the Georgians via UNESCO since that country is a member of UNESCO and has accepted the “Nature and Monuments Preservation Convention”.

When asked why they have not yet complied with the convention and what must be done to avoid such occurrences in the future, Grigoryan answered with apparent difficulty.

“Now that is a matter of state policy and I have some trouble responding to the question. It can be initiated by the Cultural Ministry but it wouldn’t be the best way to go. We went that route over the destruction of the gravestones in the Jugha (Julfa) Armenian Cemetery, we petitioned ICOMOS and UNESCO. But the Georgian issue is somewhat different; we must get them to understand the need for goodwill,” he said. “I realize that a resolution to the matter must be found but I’m not able to find the right approach, because we have a tragic situation in the case of Azerbaijan.”

It is strange that the Armenian Ministry of Culture hasn’t even come up with an approximate calculation of the Armenian historical and cultural monuments in Georgia, not even in the Armenian-populated areas of Samtskhe-Javakhk, Grigoryan noted, adding that the Armenian Architectural Research NGO tries to deal with that matter “but we are not presently engaged in the issue.”

On November 21st, Armenian bloggers took their anger and protest to the Georgian Embassy in Armenia. They carried a casket reading “you have buried the democracy newly born in Georgia.”

The demonstrators demanded that the Georgian authorities punish Father Tariel for his violations of Armenian churches in Georgia. One of the protestors described the violations as “criminal acts and hooliganism.”

“Cemeteries are being defaced and historical monuments being destroyed. When you break somebody’s window a criminal case is brought against you, but in Georgia they make you a priest and give you protection of the state, respect and honor,” the protester said. “No one is acknowledging the crimes being committed.”

“Crimes are being committed against humanity; a white genocide is being carried out. It turns out that such acts are being permitted and being encouraged. The same crimes are being committed in Javakhk,” the demonstrator added.

The head of the office of the Armenian Architectural Research group is also convinced that crimes are being committed and that if the Georgians don’t punish those responsible then the only alternative is to petition the European Court.

“For centuries we have been engaged in the arts and trades. Now we must engage in the court process. The source of our revenue has been the arts and trades, now the court can also be a source of revenue,” Karapetyan explained.

“Our forefathers have created so much and our neighbors destroyed so much that we can live off the court cases for a few centuries.” He said, adding “we must change things and sue people rather than write letters to the government or the Primate.”

“If we are going to continue with the logic that the Georgians can close the way in a court case and if by that logic we inhabit 30,000 square kilometers of land on this planet, then we must give way to those nations with honor and who can live with honor,” Karapetyan noted. “If we can spit on the graves of our ancestors every minute then it’s a waste of time to reside on these lands.”

After the recent events in Norashen, Torosyan and Haykazun Alvrtsyan, a Senior researcher at the Armenological Center at Yerevan State University, gave several press conferences expressing their concerns.

Alvrtsyan is certain that “all this is a result of the fact that there is no refined policy on the matter either by the government or by the Holy See in Etchmiadzin.”

“The society at large raises its voice constantly on these issues but they are in need of play rules as defined by established inter-governmental and inter-church relations,” he said.

On November 21st, Father Vahram Melilyan from the Etchmiadzin’s Press Office said at the “Hayeli Club” that the Holy See is not indifferent to these matters and is constantly taking action to prevent such trespasses.

“Don’t believe that silence is the overriding response,” he said. “We are working on the matter but it’s not always expedient to make our actions known publicly.”

According to Torosyan, the Armenian Prime Minister, the President of the National Assembly and the Holy See have reacted to the concerns voiced at the press conference and that an official letter of protest has been sent to Georgia via the Georgian Embassy in Armenia.

“The result is that Father Tariel has asked for forgiveness and the gravestones have been put back in their place,” he said, adding that if such violations occur in the future they will have to think of ways to prevent such occurrences.

“I would like to believe that after all this similar things will not be repeated in Georgia and if they do then it just shows that there is no respect towards their citizens that constitute a sizeable national minority, towards spiritual values in general and towards their neighbor nation,” Torosyan said.

On November 21st, the Holy See of Etchmiadzin also expressed serious concern over the matter. The Supreme Spiritual Council “condemned the improper steps and activities in opposition to the Christian spirit and the friendship of nations” and called on “the children of the Holy Armenian Apostolic Church to stand firm with the Armenians of Georgia in their efforts and struggle in the defense of Armenian churches and their national holy treasures.”

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