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Georgian and Armenian Church leaders still seeking a solution for disputed churches

By Etuna Tsotniashvili
Thursday, November 3
What is the situation in the dispute between Georgia and Armenia on the issues of Georgian churches on Armenian territory? This issue has been activated recently and today the disagreement has boiled up to both the Georgian and Armenian Patriarchates.

To raise public interest in the disputed churches in Georgia, a local NGO called Multinational Georgia, and with the support of Armenian Embassy and Armenian Assembly, organized a tour for Georgian historians and media representatives to the Debed Gorge in Armenia where two 13th century churches are located. Georgian historians say that based on the architecture, frescoes and graves with Georgian-alphabet inscriptions that the churches of Akhtala and Kobair are of Georgian origin. Both Akhtala and Kobair are now on Armenia’s territory and both are disputed subjects between the two countries.

Akhtala is located in the Lori Province on the left bank of the Debed River. On October 30, a Sunday, four or five people were in the church, lighting candles. There were no signs of giving mass or a sermon as it is traditional in Christian churches, however. In the yard of the church a rock band was playing, which caused some surprise, however I was told that a music clip was being shot and in Armenian churches they have liberal approach so it isn't unusual to play noisy music in the yard of an old church. The musicians were Americans, of Armenian origin.

The locals know that this church is the subject of dispute, however they unanimously stressed that Georgians and Armenians should solve all such problems in a friendly way. “We, the local population, know that they are Georgian churches, but I don't have much information about it. In our region both Georgians and Armenians live together and we have good relations with each other. We go to church from time to time, light candles and pray,” said Anait Taamryan to The Messenger. However on the question if sermons are held in the church regularly she had no information. “I do not know--maybe yes,” she answered in the local way.

Historian Eldar Bubulashvili told the journalists visiting the church that the Akhtala Monastery was founded in the 13th century by Ioane Mkhargrdzeli, who is buried there. The unique frescos here include those with St. Nino and St Mariam, which are very interesting.

As the local priest of Akhtala Church, Vazgen Kirakosian said, mass in the Akhtala Church was restored two years ago and is conducted in Armenian. However, the Georgian Patriarchate's representatives say that this is a violation of an agreement between the two churches.

Representative of youth movement Davitiani at the Georgian Patriarchate, Kote Svanadze, said that there was an agreement between the two patriarchates to halt any masses given in disputed churches until this issue is solved. However the agreement is being violated since in Akhtala the sermon is held in Armenian while rehabilitation works are being carried out in the Kobair church a few kilometres away.

“We only give mass and serve in the church; we are not supposed to discuss issues that have to be decided between two countries. Whatever I may answer to your questions is my personal opinion and not the official position,” Vazgen Kirakosian said.

The renovation of the Kobair church, which is in extremely poor condition, is also a subject of disagreement. Some analysts say that this violates the agreement between the two Patriarchates, as it was not agreed with Georgian Church whether the Armenian Church could begin restoration. The walls of the church are in ruins and cold weather is damaging the unique frescos.

The Vice Mayor of Alaverdi, Artur Kharatian, said: “I think this is an issue historians should discuss. It is not easy to give an answer on church ownership, but I can say one thing for sure--that this issue should not cause confrontation between two nations!”

“Armenians do not dispute that the churches are Orthodox, however there is disagreement on whether the churches were built by the Armenian Orthodox or Georgian Orthodox people. At an epoch when those churches were being built, the Debed gorge was included in Georgia’s territory and Georgians were living here. Evidence of this are the graves of people with Georgian inscriptions, and the fact that Georgian Church jurisdiction included these churches,” said historian Jaba Samushia. He said that today what is most important is that the churches be saved because as time passes the weather is destroying them.

Arnold Stepanyan, Chairman of Multinational Georgia said negotiations have begun on three disputed churches, those of Akhtala, Kobair and Khujabi. Some progress has been reached in for Khujabi and Kobair and discussions are also in progress on six Armenian churches located in Georgia.

“I think both sides should find certain compromises and agree on specific issues. The negotiations must continue so issues are solved peacefully,” Stepanyan said. “We should try to do everything for the sake of our nations. This is very sensitive issue and we want to restore friendship between the two Churches,” he added.