Progress Reported In Resolution Of Georgian-Armenian Church Disputes

Karine Simonian

The Armenian Apostolic Church said over the weekend that its supreme head, Catholicos Garegin II, reached agreements with Georgia’s political and spiritual leaders that will help to resolve its long-running disputes with the Georgian Orthodox Church.

Garegin met with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II at the start of a weeklong visit to Georgia on Friday. The two pontiffs held a more detailed discussion in the presence of high-ranking Armenian and Georgian clerics on Saturday.

Garegin expressed his satisfaction with the meetings as he and Ilia made public statements at the Georgian patriarch’s official residence in Tbilisi.

In a separate statement, Garegin’s press office said the two sides agreed that the Georgian authorities should finally grant a “legal status” to the local diocese of the Armenian Church. Like Georgia’s other minority denominations, the diocese has no official registration and is therefore not treated by the Georgian authorities as a single legal entity.

The statement said the parties also agreed on the need to grant an official status to “the Georgian religious community in Armenia.” It was not clear if it referred to Armenia’s tiny ethnic Georgian community or Armenian adherents of Greek Orthodox faith that were subordinate to the Georgian Church during the Middle Ages. Very little is known about them at present.

Ilia cited Saakashvili as saying that the Armenian Church should have the same status in Georgia as the Georgian Church in Armenia. The patriarch backed this position.

According to Garegin’s office, the Georgian side also pledged to preserve several medieval churches previously used by the Georgian-Armenian community “until their return to the diocese.” “The issue of the return of the churches will be discussed at the next stage,” read its statement.

Garegin visited two of those churches located in Tbilisi later on Saturday. One of them partly crumbled last year, while the other was severely damaged by a fire in 2001.

Garegin did not inspect another, more famous Tbilisi church built in the 15th century and known as Norashen. It has been the largest source of tensions between the two ancient Christian institutions.

Ilia, meanwhile, pressed Georgian claims to several medieval and mostly abandoned churches located in Armenia’s northern Lori province. The area was for centuries controlled by Georgian kings through their Armenian vassals. Some of those noble families were members of the Georgian Church.

“When talking about churches, one must not forget that both sides have demands,” said Ilia. “Both sides have facts and documents regarding Armenian churches in Georgia and Georgian churches in Armenia.”

Ilia proposed that the two sides set up a joint commission of scholars who would look into the matter and propose solutions. Garegin said the Armenian Church supports the idea in principle.

Both catholicoses stressed that these disputes should not damage relations between the two neighboring states. “Our peoples are bound by numerous spiritual, cultural and historical links contrary to theological differences between our Churches that emerged as a result of historical developments,” said Garegin.