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Top Georgian clerics meet Azerbaijani ambassador to settle turmoil around Gareji monastery

By Gvantsa Gabekhadze
Wednesday, May 8
Georgian Patriarch Ilia II and top clerics have met with Azerbaijani Ambassador to Georgia Dursin Hasanov and a representative of Caucasus Muslim Board chairman Sheikh-ul-Islam Allahshuqur Pashazade, Ali Aliyev “to peacefully settle” the ongoing turmoil around Georgia’s 6th century David Gareji monastery complex, located at the Georgia-Azerbaijan conditional border.

The meeting in the Georgian Patriarchate on 4-5 May came after Azerbaijani border guards closed Gareji monastery to clerics and tourists in April. The monastery was shortly re-opened after negotiations between Georgian and Azerbaijan governments.

However, as Georgia has not agreed its border with Azerbaijan since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the issue still needs to be discussed and settled.

“It has been underlined during the meeting that the friendly relations between Georgia and Azerbaijan should be maintained and that stirring any tension is unacceptable,” the Patriarchate reported.

The Patriarchate stated that David Gareji is a highly significant site for Georgia and the problems created should be resolved as soon as possible.

In its previous statement, the patriarchate urged clerics and public to refrain from making statements that could harm the negotiations or insult the Muslim religion.

The Georgian Foreign Ministry reported last week about the renovation of works by a special commission, composed of Georgian and Azerbaijani representatives, which works on the border issues.

An anti-occupation movement of Georgia, a group of people which is voluntarily patrolling the occupation lines in Georgia, has stated that several members of the group are also patrolling Gareji to “avoid undesirable solutions for Georgia and to inform the public promptly.”

Local cleric Kirion says that after the incident on 23-24-25 April, when Azerbaijani border guards prevented clerics and tourists from entering the site, the number of border guards increased to 17-18 men, while “only two have been patrolling the area previously.”

“The number was increased shortly after the site was re-opened to visitors and clerics [following the negotiation of the Georgian and Azerbaijani governments] late on April 25,” Kirion says.

The cleric reckons the increase of the guards “indicates to the Azerbaijani interest in Georgia's historic site,” which attracts hundreds of local and international tourists daily.

Georgia has not managed to agree on borders with Azerbaijan and Armenia after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The border issue has been discussed only with Turkey.

Kirion says that the situation at the site has complicated after the visit of Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili early in April, who urged for the “ timely resolution of the border issue with Azerbaijan.”

The Georgian Foreign Ministry says that the “border issue is specific” and such topics should be settled calmly and in a friendly environment.

Azerbaijani border guards also closed the 6th-century site back in 2012 that was protested by the march of hundreds of Georgians to David Gareji, which ended by the re-opening of the site.

David Gareji is a complex of 22 rock-hewn monasteries and more than 5,000 sanctuaries and cave-cells, located in Georgia’s south-east.