By Brittany Pheiffer
A controversy over a historically Georgian monastery in Jerusalem is further complicating already-strained ties between Tel Aviv and Tbilisi.
Despite mutual reputations as bastions of liberalism in charged geopolitical zones, Georgia’s relationship with Israel has been rocky for years. Georgia’s previously positive relationship with Israel became tense after intelligence indicated that Israel had abetted the Russians in the August 2008 war. Ties have yet to fully recover, no doubt exacerbated by the Fuchs trial and the failed Elbit arms deal, and rumors that the very Israeli security firm that trains Georgian troops may in fact be looking for business in Abkhazia has hardly helped things (for the full story, check out Evolutsia’s earlier piece). Thus, despite the significant amount of Israeli tourism to Georgia — estimated in the tens of thousands of annual visitors and notably encouraged in a 2010 bilateral tourism agreement — Tbilisi has had a cold relationship with those Israelis not simply interested in hiking through Svaneti.
However, Georgian-Israeli diplomatic relations took on another twist last month when Georgian officials began formally investigating the possibility of reclaiming a historical Georgian monastery in Jerusalem, the 11th-century Monastery of the Cross. President Saakashvili himself gave rousing support for the restoration of the monastery to Georgia in a speech in Gori on February 25, announcing, “That monastery is a part of our history and we should return it to the Georgian Church.” [Rus]
Although at the time of Saakashvili’s announcement there were no formal talks with Israel, a special taskforce was poised to start tackling the issue. It appeared that Tbilisi acted quickly, as within days Speaker of the Parliament David Bakradze was dispatched to Jerusalem and was said to have met with Israeli Minister of Religious Affairs Yakov Margi. While the Georgian government has acknowledged that the monastery is technically property of the Patriarchate of Jerusalem, they insist it is necessary to keep the Israeli government abreast of their intentions and progress and opted not to contact the Patriarch on this visit. It seems this tactic met with some success, as Bakradze announced that Margi has promised his assistance in the search for a viable solution for all parties involved. Bakradze told a number of news sources that he had discussed the issue of the monastery with Israeli officials and insisted that the Israelis were willing to give him legal advice on how to proceed, if not explicit support. Saakashvili highlighted this, thanking the Israeli government in early March for their cooperation in protecting the Georgian monastery.
However, in the immediate wake of these comments, the Israeli government unexpectedly denied discussing this issue and insisted that the meetings addressed only the pending loosening of visa restrictions for Israeli-Georgian travel and new direct flights between the two nations. As late as March 18th, representatives from the Ministry for Religious Affairs and the Knesset [Israeli parliament] repudiated all of Bakradze’s statements and insisted his claims were an invention or a misunderstanding. Despite Israel’s explicit and repeated denials, the Patriarch of Jerusalem nevertheless publically denounced Saakashvili on March 11 for involving the Israeli government in dealings that should first go through the Patriarchate [Rus]. Bakradze’s presumed initiative with Israeli officials particularly incensed Greek ecclesial authorities in Jerusalem because negotiations over the monastery were never even mentioned when Georgian Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II last visited Jerusalem. Such a circumlocution of church figures by secular powers seemed presumptuous at best to the Jerusalem clergy. Presumptuous, perhaps, but the outcry over it was enough to clarify whether or not the talks had even taken place. In short, they had.
After the flurry of publicity from the Patriarch of Jerusalem and Tbilisi, Israeli officials admitted that they had in fact spoken with Bakradze about the mechanics of returning the monastery to the Georgian church and that they were well aware that it was a three-sided process involving Israel, Georgia, and the Patriarchate of Jerusalem. Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III retorted that the question of a return of the monastery was simply an attempt to pit Israel against the Greek Orthodox Church, with Greek as a metonym for the Eastern Orthodox communion. Although the vast majority of Christians under the Patriarch of Jerusalem (historically including areas of Israel, the Palestinian territories, and Jordan) are Arabs, since Ottoman times they have been marginally (if at all) represented in the Patriarchate’s Greek-dominated hierarchy. That is to say, the Patriarchate of Jerusalem has been functionally an extension of the Church of Constantinople since the Ottoman era and is loath to surrender any properties in the coveted Holy Land to another jurisdiction.
Problematically, there is little dispute over whether the church is historically Georgian and that is legally under the present jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Jerusalem. While the current building was constructed in the 11th century under the patronage of King Bagrat IV, the land has been home to a Georgian monastery since the 4th or 5th century. The earliest Georgian monastery on the site, supposedly built after Constantine granted the land to Georgia upon their conversion to Christianity, was destroyed by Persian invaders in the 7th century. It was rebuilt again and survived, with some damage, through the various attacks of Crusaders, Mamluks, Persians, and Turks. The site of the monastery is said to include the site of Adam’s burial as well as the place from which the tree for the crucifixion of Jesus was felled. The frescoes on the wall include what many think is the only portrait of Shota Rustaveli, beloved Georgian poet and author of the famed “Knight in Panther’s Skin,” as well as some manuscripts from the monastery library that date back to Rustaveli’s stay in Jerusalem. In short, it is a place teeming with historical, cultural, and religious significance for Georgians. Nevertheless, the monastery was transferred to the hands of the church of Constantinople in 1685 after it became financially impossible to maintain. Since then, it has undergone at least two cycles of decay and restoration and is currently home to a number of Greek monks under the Patriarchate of Jerusalem.
The past month’s discussions may be the first direct treatment of ownership by the Georgians, but it is not the first time Georgians have rallied in recent years to see the monastery protected. In 2004, the fresco painting of Rustaveli was defaced, resulting in a great outcry from Georgian officials. They implored the Israeli officials to investigate the matter and find the vandals and, when no one was caught, many cynical Georgians became convinced Greek monks themselves were the perpetrators. Then just last month, the monastery was one of the many victims of militant Jewish settlers who use the signature “Price Tag” when vandalizing non-Jewish property. The exterior walls of the medieval monastery were defaced by graffiti that read, “Death to Christians.” While the supremacist elements have primarily targeted Muslims and Arabs, the latest graffiti was part of recent outbreak of anti-Christian vandalism aimed at Orthodox and Protestant churches.
The complications of rising orthodox Jewish supremacism hardly clarify how Israel must respond to Georgia’s claims. Nor can Georgia realistically continue to sidestep Patriarch Theophilos by innocuously throwing the Monastery of the Cross onto a list of diplomatic requests. Georgia has little leverage with Israel and not only because of its friendly relations with Iran. If Georgia wants jurisdiction of the Monastery of the Cross transferred to its historic home, they will need to creatively, cleverly and aggressively address the complicated legacy of Georgia’s presence in Israel and be willing to enter into real negotiations with the Greek Orthodox authorities through both secular and ecclesial channels.