Houses of the Holy

The cupola of the medieval Georgian Orthodox monastery of Oskhi in northeastern Turkey

The cupola of the medieval Georgian Orthodox monastery of Oskhi in northeastern Turkey

Eka Chitanava

A diplomatic deal to restore crumbling Georgian monasteries in Turkey faces stiff Orthodox opposition.

TBILISI | The cupola of Oshki monastery dates to the 10th century, and it’s falling apart. Medieval frescoes are peeling off the building’s moss-covered interior walls. In recent years two stone columns covered with bas-reliefs have been plundered. Cows and donkeys shelter inside.

This Georgian Orthodox monastery and the crumbling Christian temple of Ishkhani, parts of which date to the 7th century, are located in northeastern Turkey, in an area formerly known as Tao-Klarjeti that centuries ago belonged to the Georgian kingdom. For years, as the monasteries’ condition worsened, Georgian and Turkish officials have tried to negotiate a deal to restore them.

On 27 January, Georgian Culture Minister Nikoloz Rurua and his Turkish counterpart, Ertugrul Gunay, reached an agreement under which Turkey will restore the medieval structures, with Georgian specialists supervising the work. In exchange, Georgia will rehabilitate a mosque in the southwestern town of Akhaltsikhe and build a replica of the Abd al-Aziz mosque in the border city of Batumi, which was burned down during the Soviet era.

The two countries nearly struck a similar pact in 2005, when specialists first raised alarms about the critical condition of the monasteries. They were close to agreements again in 2007 and 2011. Each time, Georgia’s government yielded to Orthodox leaders, who objected to linking the monasteries to new mosques in Georgia. The latest agreement, still unsigned, has raised similar hackles.

“Turkey has issued an ultimatum. If our governments have friendly ties, why does Turkey demand that we build a new mosque in Georgia?” said the Rev. Michael Botkoveli, secretary of the Georgian patriarchate. “We can’t understand why our government has accepted such unreasonable conditions.”

The patriarchate has an alternative plan to save the monasteries: submit them to UNESCO as potential World Heritage Sites. But Georgian historian Buba Kudava, who has done extensive research on Tao-Klarjeti, pointed out that the process would have to be initiated by Turkey, which is unlikely to prioritize Georgian sites for UNESCO consideration ahead of a plethora of monuments to its own history and culture.

What Orthodox leaders declare a Turkish ultimatum, Kudava termed normal bilateral relations. “It can’t be called ‘a trade’ or ‘an ultimatum,’ ” he said. “It’s diplomatic talks between two countries!”

While those talks have dragged on, the condition of the monasteries has worsened. A 2008 proposal involved three monasteries and three mosques, but since that deal collapsed, so, too, has the third monastery, Khandzta.

“Our priority is to save our cultural heritage,” Kudava said. “There’s no time for another delay.”

To opponents, the agreements represent not diplomatic quid pro quo, but concessions to rising Turkish influence in Adjara, the border region of which Batumi is the capital. Echoing a 2008 letter the leader of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Ilia II, wrote to the country’s prime minister objecting to a deal then on the table, Botkoveli said the region’s Islamic population already has sufficient places to worship.

“Aren’t more than a hundred mosques enough for Muslims in Adjara?” he said. “I think Georgian Muslims have more than enough mosques. Let’s set a date when they are gathering in mosques and we’ll see how many of them show up.”

Tariel Nakaidze, head of the Georgian Muslims Union, called such comments “very insulting.”

“They constantly underline that we already have loads of mosques, so why should Turkey build another one?” Nakaidze said. “They make it sound as if all mosques belong to the Turks. They forget that we are Georgians first, then Muslims.”

But the church’s position strikes a chord with devout Christians in Batumi. Orthodox crowds held an open-air mass on 4 March to protest the reconstruction of the mosque.

The dispute reflects centuries of history that have seen Adjara embrace different faiths. The region was part of the Georgian kingdom from medieval times until the early 17th century, when it was conquered by the Ottomans and Islamicized. (Another church objection stems from the rebuilt mosque being named for Abd al-Aziz, the Ottoman sultan from 1861 to 1876. “Why should we build a mosque dedicated to a conqueror of our lands?” Botkoveli said. Kudava, the historian, countered, “By that logic, Russian Orthodox churches could be symbols of the Russian empire.”)

After Turkey’s defeat in an 1877-1878 war with Russia, the province was ceded to the Russian empire. Under Soviet rule it became an autonomous republic, and both Orthodox and Muslim houses of worship were dismantled or repurposed during Stalin’s rule. With the collapse of communism, Adjara reverted to Georgia.

Since then, Orthodox influence in the region has grown through institutions such as Tbel Abuseridze University. Launched in 2009 in the heavily Muslim village of Khichauri, the school offers free tuition and meals to Adjarian students – an exception among Georgian public universities, which offer free education only to students granted full scholarships, regardless of their home region. According to a paper by the European Center for Minority Issues, the Tbel Abuseridze faculty is dominated by Orthodox priests from elsewhere in Georgia, and the church’s role figures strongly in the school’s history instruction.

There are no precise data on Adjara’s religious demographics, and estimates vary widely. Some official figures set the Islamic population at about 10 percent, centered in rural communities, but the Georgian Muslims Union says the true figure is more like 65 percent and that in some areas of the province the Islamic faithful are underserved.

According to a 2010 census of religious facilities by the Niko Berdzenishvili Institute, a research center in Batumi, there are 184 active Muslim buildings in Adjara but only one functioning mosque in the regional capital.

“Muslims have been demanding a new mosque in Batumi for more than 10 years,” said Jemal Paksadze, the chief mufti of Adjara.

Local Muslims say the single operating mosque in the city is frequently overcrowded. “While at prayer people stand in the mosque yard in the open air, and even occupy neighboring streets,” said Temur Gorgadze, head of the Union of Theologians, a civic group.

The Georgian Culture Ministry says the Abd al-Aziz facility will not be a functioning mosque but a museum, much as the restored monasteries across the border will showcase Georgia’s heritage in region. That carries little weight with some Batumi residents, who already view the planned mosque more in political than religious terms, as an extension of Turkish influence in the border city.

“Turks have large shares in [Batumi] businesses,” one resident said. “They get second citizenship of Georgia, and Turkish investors buy property for a song.”

Some opposition politicians have seized on anti-Turkey sentiments, notably Murman Dumbadze, who was booted from the liberal, opposition Republican Party for vitriolic Turkophobic statements. At a 13 February press conference, he called the Batumi mosque proposal “an insidious plan, by which Turkey imposes its will on us.”

Such rhetoric notwithstanding, Beka Mindiashvili, head of the Tolerance Center in the state public defender’s office, said the church, rather than politicians, is primarily responsible for stoking the conflict.

“It all stems from the patriarchate, which knows how to use its influence,” Mindiashvili said. Polls repeatedly show that Ilia II and his church are widely admired in Georgia.

“It doesn’t matter who builds the mosque, Turkey or somebody else. The patriarchate just does not want any other mosque in Batumi,” Mindiashvili said.

To supporters of the new deal, the mosque controversy muddies the core issue, which is cultural rather than religious.

“One cannot prevent people from demanding a shrine to carry out their rituals. What we are facing now is another issue,” Zviad Koridze, a prominent Tbilisi journalist and adviser to the Eurasia Partnership Foundation, said in an interview with online magazine Netgazeti. “The deal between Georgia and Turkey should not be discussed in a religious context. The main focus is a national interest – we are striving to save our cultural heritage.”

Eka Chitanava is a reporter for the Tbilisi magazine Liberali. Mary Emiridze, a freelance journalist in Batumi, contributed to this article.