By Emil Danielyan
The governments of Armenia and Georgia reaffirmed their intention to strengthen bilateral economic relations during Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian’s Tuesday visit to Tbilisi overshadowed by a renewed Georgian-Armenian dispute over a 15th century local church.
Sarkisian publicly challenged the Georgian Orthodox Church’s claim to the church known as Norashen by lighting candles and praying there with members of Tbilisi’s Armenian community.
There were more than 20 Armenian churches in Tbilisi in the late 19th century, a time when the city had a vibrant and large Armenian community that played an important role in its cultural and economic life. Only two of them are controlled by the Armenian Church at present. The local Armenian community and its spiritual leaders have been trying to regain ownership of six other worship sites, including Norashen, ever since the Soviet collapse. The Georgian Church has insisted on their Georgian origin with the tacit backing of successive governments in Tbilisi.
The dispute first flared up into an open confrontation in 2005 when the Armenian Apostolic Church accused a Georgian priest of erasing Armenian frescos and inscriptions from Norashen and placing Georgian tombstones in the church’s courtyard to prepare ground for its takeover by the Georgian Church. The two churches and governments froze the dispute at the time, agreeing to keep the status quo pending further negotiations.
Tensions were re-ignited after Norashen was encircled by a fence carrying emblems of the Georgian Church last August. Leaders of the Armenian community of Tbilisi accused the controversial priest, Tariel Sikinchelashvili, of defacing two Armenian gravestones there last month. The accusations prompted serious concern from the Armenian Church’s Supreme Spiritual Council.
Sarkisian echoed those concerns during his talks with Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili and Prime Minister Grigol Mgaloblishvili. “This issue is very important for us,” Regnum news agency quoted him as saying after the talks. “I asked President Saakashvili to intervene in the process, and the head of the Georgian state assured me that he will personally deal with this issue.”
Speaking at a joint news conference with Sarkisian, Mgaloglishvili urged the Armenians not to “politicize” the dispute, the Georgian news agency Caucasus Press reported. He said the head of the Georgian Church, Patriarch Ilia II, has proposed the creation of a commission of Georgian and Armenian clerics who would jointly determine the origin of Norashen and other churches.
The Armenian premier is understood to have accepted the proposal. In a move apparently timed to coincide with his one-day trip, a group of Tbilisi Armenians reportedly picketed the Georgian Ministry of Culture to demand an end to what they see as a systematic destruction of Armenian religious and cultural heritage in the country.
The main purpose of Sarkisian’s visit to Tbilisi was to chair, together with Mgaloblishvili, a regular session of the Georgian-Armenian inter-governmental commission on bilateral cooperation. The two men also presided over the signing of two agreements. One of them amended a Georgian-Armenian free trade deal signed in 1995.
"Georgian-Armenian relations are developing very dynamically and this meeting gave a new impetus to them,” Mgaloblishvili told journalists afterward.
“It is our duty to boost friendly neighboring relations between Georgia and Armenia,” Sarkisian said, according to Georgia’s Rustavi-2 television. “There are no issues on which we cannot reach an agreement, and the agreements that we have signed prove this.”
A separate statement by the Armenian government said the commission focused on the implementation of economic agreements reached by the presidents of the two countries in Tbilisi in late September. That includes the construction of a new highway in southern Georgia that would significantly shorten travel between Armenia and the Georgian Black Sea cost. The Georgian ports of Batumi and Poti process at least 70 percent of cargos shipped to and from Armenia.
The two prime ministers said their governments are actively looking for foreign investors and lenders interested in financing the project. According to the Armenian government statement, the two sides agreed to coordinate these efforts.
The statement said they also approved plans for the construction of a second bridge on the main Armenian-Georgian border crossing and streamline customs procedures and passport control there. In addition, the two governments will work together in attracting more foreign tourists to Armenia and Georgia, it added.