Armenia wants to win some 450 churches of Georgia in court

Armenia wants to win some 450 churches of Georgia in court

By Giorgi Kalatozishvili, Tbilisi. Exclusively for Vestnik Kavkaza

 

Vazgen Mirzakhanyan, the spiritual leader of Armenians in Georgia, the head of the eparchy of the Armenian Apostolic Church, demands the return of hundreds of Georgian Orthodox churches to Armenian control. Vaagn Chakhalyan, a leader of activists striving for the autonomy of Javakheti (a region in the southern part of Georgia, populated mainly by Armenians), was arrested for extremism during the presidency of Mikheil Saakashvili, only to be pardoned after the Georgian Dream coalition’s victory at the parliamentary polls in 2012.

 

After release from prison on amnesty, Chakhalyan was immediately invited by the head of the Armenian eparchy to the main Armenian church in Tbilisi, where he was welcomed as a hero and “fighter against Georgian imperialism.” Saakashvili could not hide his disappointment, reminding about the deeds done for the well-being of the population of Javakheti: a new highway, hospitals, schools and, most importantly, the status of a legal body granted to the Armenian church in Georgia. Only the Georgian Orthodox Church had had such status before that. Mikheil Saakashvili arduously “pushed” his decision through the parliament, despite the position of the Georgian Orthodox Church. Many warned back then that the status of a legal body would be used as an instrument in endless international-level disputes around the ownership of churches.

 

The story of Chakhalyan remains an important symptom of sentiment in the Armenian eparchy. Hence, reports about demands of the Armenian eparchy for Georgia to return hundreds of Georgian churches were unsurprising. Controversies have been ongoing for decades, since Soviet times, when special departments for “protection of monuments” had existed in Georgia and Armenia. Georgian and Armenian historians have been arguing about the “true ownership” of monuments at conferences and seminars. 

An unofficial principle was imposed after gaining independence and returning “monuments” to their true owners, i.e. Georgian and Armenian churches. The principle resembles the principles of “territorial integrity.” Both sides have been trying to resolve all disputes without having to make them a public problem for many years.

 

Georgian historian Paata Bukhrashvili believes that disputes and disagreements over the origin of churches are normal, considering the historical processes: “There is nothing unusual about the presence of Armenian churches in Georgia and Georgian churches in Armenia.

 

Armenians have been integrated into the Georgian state, the titulary of Georgian kings mentioned Armenia too. The Armenian and Georgian communities were closely interlaced. There have been many cases in which Georgian foundations were discovered at excavations at Armenian churches in Tbilisi. Armenia has many Georgian churches, such as Akhtala. Before the schism of dyophysites and monophysites, Armenians and Georgians had been a single religious community. That is why many churches of the age (5-6th centuries) have Georgian and Armenian inscriptions,” says the scientist. In Bukhrashvili’s opinion, “some powers are trying to politicize the problem and incite tensions around the issue.”

 

It seems that the efforts to “politicize” the dispute were what provoked Vazgen Mirzakhaanyan’s demand for the return to his eparchy of 450 churches in Georgia, most of which are active. The churches conduct divine services for Orthodox Christians. According to Vestnik Kavkaza, the demand was only the first step towards an open interstate dispute about the ownership of the churches. Armenia plans to make it a subject of “cultural heritage” and address UNESCO, knowing that the chances of solving the problem in international clerical institutions are low.

 

The Georgian Foreign Ministry told a Vestnik Kavkaza reporter that nothing was known about any such plans. But considering that the Georgian diplomatic system often learns about essential processes late, the lack of information among Georgian diplomats does not mean a lack of plans on the side of their potential opponents. Apparently, the letter to UNESCO is only the first step to “fix” the problem at an international level. Claims filed with international judicial institutions, the Council of Europe, its specialized structures and so on will follow it. The Georgian patriarchy told Vestnik Kavkaza that it was unaware of the claims. “We have a list of Georgian churches in Armenia too,” said a hierarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church in an interview with me.

 

Thus, if the Armenian side does give the dispute an international tone, it may become a subject of many years of legal battles, counterclaims and even greater politicization, inevitably undermining interstate relations.

Spiritual leader of Armenians in Georgia may instigate the first interstate dispute about churchesBy Giorgi Kalatozishvili, Tbilisi. Exclusively for Vestnik KavkazaVazgen Mirzakhanyan, the spiritual leader of Armenians in Georgia, the head of the eparchy of the Armenian Apostolic Church, demands the return of hundreds of Georgian Orthodox churches to Armenian control. Vaagn Chakhalyan, a leader of activists striving for the autonomy of Javakheti (a region in the southern part of Georgia, populated mainly by Armenians), was arrested for extremism during the presidency of Mikheil Saakashvili, only to be pardoned after the Georgian Dream coalition’s victory at the parliamentary polls in 2012.After release from prison on amnesty, Chakhalyan was immediately invited by the head of the Armenian eparchy to the main Armenian church in Tbilisi, where he was welcomed as a hero and “fighter against Georgian imperialism.” Saakashvili could not hide his disappointment, reminding about the deeds done for the well-being of the population of Javakheti: a new highway, hospitals, schools and, most importantly, the status of a legal body granted to the Armenian church in Georgia. Only the Georgian Orthodox Church had had such status before that. Mikheil Saakashvili arduously “pushed” his decision through the parliament, despite the position of the Georgian Orthodox Church. Many warned back then that the status of a legal body would be used as an instrument in endless international-level disputes around the ownership of churches.The story of Chakhalyan remains an important symptom of sentiment in the Armenian eparchy. Hence, reports about demands of the Armenian eparchy for Georgia to return hundreds of Georgian churches were unsurprising. Controversies have been ongoing for decades, since Soviet times, when special departments for “protection of monuments” had existed in Georgia and Armenia. Georgian and Armenian historians have been arguing about the “true ownership” of monuments at conferences and seminars. An unofficial principle was imposed after gaining independence and returning “monuments” to their true owners, i.e. Georgian and Armenian churches. The principle resembles the principles of “territorial integrity.” Both sides have been trying to resolve all disputes without having to make them a public problem for many years.Georgian historian Paata Bukhrashvili believes that disputes and disagreements over the origin of churches are normal, considering the historical processes: “There is nothing unusual about the presence of Armenian churches in Georgia and Georgian churches in Armenia.Armenians have been integrated into the Georgian state, the titulary of Georgian kings mentioned Armenia too. The Armenian and Georgian communities were closely interlaced. There have been many cases in which Georgian foundations were discovered at excavations at Armenian churches in Tbilisi. Armenia has many Georgian churches, such as Akhtala. Before the schism of dyophysites and monophysites, Armenians and Georgians had been a single religious community. That is why many churches of the age (5-6th centuries) have Georgian and Armenian inscriptions,” says the scientist. In Bukhrashvili’s opinion, “some powers are trying to politicize the problem and incite tensions around the issue.”It seems that the efforts to “politicize” the dispute were what provoked Vazgen Mirzakhaanyan’s demand for the return to his eparchy of 450 churches in Georgia, most of which are active. The churches conduct divine services for Orthodox Christians. According to Vestnik Kavkaza, the demand was only the first step towards an open interstate dispute about the ownership of the churches. Armenia plans to make it a subject of “cultural heritage” and address UNESCO, knowing that the chances of solving the problem in international clerical institutions are low.The Georgian Foreign Ministry told a Vestnik Kavkaza reporter that nothing was known about any such plans. But considering that the Georgian diplomatic system often learns about essential processes late, the lack of information among Georgian diplomats does not mean a lack of plans on the side of their potential opponents. Apparently, the letter to UNESCO is only the first step to “fix” the problem at an international level. Claims filed with international judicial institutions, the Council of Europe, its specialized structures and so on will follow it. The Georgian patriarchy told Vestnik Kavkaza that it was unaware of the claims. “We have a list of Georgian churches in Armenia too,” said a hierarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church in an interview with me.Thus, if the Armenian side does give the dispute an international tone, it may become a subject of many years of legal battles, counterclaims and even greater politicization, inevitably undermining interstate relati

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