BY ANDRE ARZOO
YEREVAN–Armenian students and activists gathered at Yerevan’s Republic Square on November 24 and marched toward the Georgian Embassy in protest of the Georgian Government’s intentional neglect of the numerous ancient Armenian Churches within its borders, as well as its restriction against officially registering the Armenian Apostolic Church as an active diocese in today’s Georgian State where several hundred-thousand Armenians reside.
The demonstration against the Georgian Government’s policy was an active and outspoken response to the recent collapse of a wall of the ancient ‘Mughni Surp Gevorg’ Armenian Apostolic Church, on Nov. 19, 2009 in Tbilisi, Georgia – illustrating the tragic consequences of such policies of discrimination & religious intolerance.
The damage and collapse caused by the lack of maintenance and upkeep was to such a degree that nearby buildings were also damaged within the Sololaki District of the Georgian Capital (The Georgian Times). Surp Gevorg Church remains closed due to its critically deteriorating condition, and unfortunately, is not the only Armenian Church suffering from such circumstances in Georgia.
The ancient Armenian ‘Surb Norashen Church’, also located in Tbilisi, Georgia, dates back to 1467 A.D. and was closed off from any religious activities in the 1930’s by the then Communist Govt., and instead, was used as a book depository much like many other religious sites at the time.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the newly Independent State of Georgia purposely neglected returning the Armenian church to the Armenian Apostolic Church Diocese in Tbilisi – gating off the church, destroying ancient Armenian tomb stones, and boarding up the church instead.
Chairman of the Armenian Center of Cooperation in Georgia, Karen Elchyan, has categorized this process as “Georgian-ization,” where the government has intentionally isolated & boarded up Surp Norashen Church; restricting public access, encircling it with concrete walls displaying Georgian Crosses, and initiating a campaign to annex Norashen to the neighboring Georgian Orthodox Church, claiming it as one of its own.
A U.S. State Department’s Global Report in November 2005, describing the state of religious freedom in the Georgian Republic, declared:
“Many problems among traditional religious groups stem from property disputes. The Roman Catholic and Armenian Apostolic Churches have been unable to secure the return of their churches and other facilities that were closed during the Soviet period, many of which later were given to the Georgian Orthodox Church by the [Georgian] State,” the report states, noting that “the prominent Armenian church in Tbilisi, Norashen, remains closed, as do four other smaller Armenian churches in Tbilisi and one in [the region of] Akhaltsikhe.”
Among the 29 Armenian Churches functioning in Tbilisi in the beginning of the 20th-Century, only 1 remains active. Many analysts and members of the Armenian Community in Georgia view this as an attempt to completely assimilate or drive out what remains of this centuries old ethnic-Armenian population.
What is needed now is decisive action within the Armenian Diaspora today by petitioning their influential community organizations, such as the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA), the Armenian Assembly of America (AAA), youth organizations, student groups, who are active within the Armenian-American Community, as well as other communities, so as to lobby their respective governments for support.
Our worldwide Armenian network not only has the access but also the resources and potential determination to rally their respective host countries toward pressuring the Georgian Govt. to not only protect and rehabilitate centuries old Armenian Churches, but to also register the Armenian Apostolic Church, and other active religious groups, as legal religious entities within today’s Georgian Republic.
The several hundred thousand strong Armenian Community in Georgia deserves the same rights of religious and ethnic tolerance as their brethren enjoy elsewhere, let’s not take our rights and good fortune for granted.
Please help reverse the Georgian Government’s campaign, by signing this petition urging influential organizations within the Armenian Diaspora to lobby their respective governments to mobilize and take action in defense of our ethnic and religious heritage.