Georgian Church Says ‘Ignored’ in Turkish-Georgian Talks on Restoring Historic Sites

Civil Georgia, Tbilisi

The Georgian Orthodox Church has again spoken out against potential deal between Georgia and Turkey, which, if signed, will pave the way for reconstruction of four Georgian medieval monasteries, now located in north-east Turkey, in exchange of rebuilding one and restoring of several other mosques in Georgia.

The similar agreement was close to finalizing three years ago, but at the time Georgian government yielded to opposition from the influential Orthodox Church and the deal was not signed.

Georgian officials are pushing for the agreement saying that it is the only way to save the Georgian historic monuments in Turkey, which have significant importance for the Georgian cultural heritage and which are now on the verge of collapse.

In a statement released on February 4 – the second one on the matter in less than a month (the first one was released on January 18) – the Georgian Orthodox Church put forth two reasons behind its opposition to the agreement. One is related to the list of churches to be rehabilitated and another one is related to ownership issue – the Georgian Patriarchate insists on inclusions in the list two other churches located in Turkey. The potential deal includes restoration of three monastery complexes of Oshki, Khandzta and Ishkhani, as well as church of Otkhta in exchange of restoration of three mosques, two baths and rebuilding of a mosque in Batumi, which burned down in mid-20th century.

“We hoped that after the January 18 statement the Patriarchate would have been involved in the negotiations,” the Georgian Orthodox Church said in the statement on February 4. “Unfortunately it has not happened and the process is proceeding without taking into consideration interests of the Church, which is unacceptable for us, because we deem it unjustified to build mosques without handing over of Khakhuli and Ardasheni [churches].”

According to the National Agency for Cultural Heritage of Georgia the four historic sites in Turkey were selected based on two principles – their huge cultural and historic importance and urgency of their restoration as they are on the verge of collapse.

The Georgian Orthodox Church also said in the statement: “Mosques to be restored and rebuilt in Georgia are under the Muslin organizations’ ownership, while the churches to be restored in Turkey as of now are not considered to be under the ownership of the Georgian Church, which is not fair.”

According to Nika Vacheishvili, head of the national agency for cultural heritage of Georgia, the issue of ownership is not yet finalized in talks with Turkey and the form of ownership is not yet defined, as well as the form of the sites’ functioning after their restoration.

The potential deal has also been slammed by some opposition groups, including for, as they say, not taking into consideration opinion of the Georgian Orthodox Church.

President Saakashvili spoke twice publicly strongly in favor of the deal. Asked on the matter in a live televised question and answer session with the public on January 25 he said that there were opposing opinions about this issue; he said that there were more than two hundred thousand Muslims living in Georgia and saying that “building of a mosque is anti-Georgia amounts to saying that those thousands of Muslims should not be living in Georgia… I can not allow that.” “If we want to have a state, we should grow up, instead of playing on cheap demagogy,” he said. Saakashvili also spoke on the same issue on February 1 and said: “When we say – not we, but some marginal politicians – that a mosque should not be built, it amounts to saying that Georgia is a country where there should not be Muslims.”

It was announced on February 7, that Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu will pay a two-day visit to Georgia later this week. According to the Georgian Foreign Ministry no agreement is planned to be signed during the visit, however it is expected that the issue of reconstruction of sites of cultural heritage will be raised during the talks.