Georgia yesterday reopened a world-renowned medieval cathedral in the ex-Soviet state’s second city Kutaisi which has been restored despite concerns raised by global cultural agency Unesco.
The consecration ceremony was attended by Georgian Orthodox Patriarch Ilia II and President Mikhail Saakashvili as well as representatives of opposition parties which are challenging the ruling United National Movement in crucial elections on October 1.
Thousands of people gathered outside the 11th century Bagrati Cathedral, chanting along with the Patriarch and Saakashvili: “Christ resurrected.”
“We may have a different vision of politics, the economy – I hope we do not differ in the main things, that Georgia must never be given up to our enemy, no matter what our personal ambitions are,” Saakashvili said at the cathedral in televised comments directed at his political opponents.
Built by Bagrat III, the first king of unified Georgia, the cathedral is a masterpiece of medieval Georgian architecture and is seen as a symbol of the unity of the Georgian state.
At the ceremony, Saakashvili vowed to regain control over two Russian-backed breakaway regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which Moscow recognised as independent states after the 2008 Georgia-Russia war.
“Just as we are standing together and celebrating the great cathedral’s restoration, we will restore a unified and strong Georgia if we all stand together,” he said.
The project to restore the crumbling cathedral, badly damaged during an Ottoman invasion in the 17th century, has worried Unesco’s World Heritage Committee which monitors the conservation of buildings on the World Heritage List.
In 2010, the committee publicly censured Georgia by putting Bagrati on its ‘world heritage in danger’ list.
It said the cathedral was under threat from “irreversible” reconstruction works that could have an impact on its “outstanding universal value, integrity and authenticity”.
With the election looming Saakashvili’s main challenger Bidzina Ivanishvili, the billionaire leader of the Georgian Dream opposition coalition, who did not attend the ceremony, accused his rival of trying to score political points ahead of the polls in the strongly religious country.
“Mikhail Saakashvili is trying to persuade people that the temple was reconstructed by him, although it was done by the Georgian people,” Ivanishvili said in televised comments.