By Nina Akhmeteli, AFPAmidst the rambling homes and cobble-stoned streets of the Georgian capital Tbilisi's old town, two stone churches stand side-by-side, sharing a snow-covered courtyard.
One, the Georgian Orthodox Church of Jvaris Mama, is alive with parishioners and lit candles. Its neighbor, the Norashen Church, sits lonely and locked. Unused for nearly seven decades, the Norashen Church is at the heart of long-running dispute between the Armenian Apostolic and the Georgian Orthodox Churches.
The dispute has flared again in recent weeks, raising ethnic tensions in Georgia as it is still recovering from an August war with Russia over the South Ossetia region, where ethnic Ossetian separatists broke from Georgian control in the early 1990s. Ownership disputes between the two churches are common, but the Norashen Church has come to symbolize what some in the local Armenian community say is the "Georgianization" of traditionally Armenian churches.
Armenian experts say the Norashen Church was built in the 15th century for the local Armenian community and continued to operate until it was shut down during the Soviet Union's anti-religion drive in the 1930s. The Georgian church says there is no conclusive evidence that Norashen was Armenian and that its origins are open to debate. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, ownership of the church fell to the Georgian government and the dispute has yet to be resolved.
The latest flare-up occurred when local Armenians claimed that the priest of the Georgian church next to Norashen, Father Tariel Sikinchelashvili, tried to remove Armenian tombstones from its graveyard. Alexander Ohanian, the head of the head of Armenian Cooperation Centre of Georgia, said that in mid-November he saw a bulldozer working in the church yard and that two Armenian tombstones had been removed.
Local Armenians gathered in the yard and confronted Father Tariel, accusing him of seeking to remove evidence that the church is Armenian. The tombstones were later returned, but Ohanian said local Armenians don't believe their removal was an accident. "It is too naive to think that he acted alone, without permission from his superiors," Ohanian said.
A senior Armenian priest in Tbilisi, Father Narek Kushian, said the Georgian church has been trying to convert the building since 1989. "Father Tariel is trying to seize the church and add Orthodox attributes to raise questions about its origin," Kushian said. "The inscription on the cupola of the church was erased by him and the main attributes showing this church is Armenian, such as the altar, have also been destroyed."
Approached in his church, Father Tariel refused to comment on the allegations. "I am just too tired of it all," he said. "I've done as much as I can and all I can do now is pray."
A spokesman for the Georgian Orthodox Church, Davit Sharashenidze, said a commission is to resolve ownership disputes between the two churches. "We can't say unambiguously that it is an Armenian church, as there is also evidence backing opposite claims," he said. "The Georgian side has similar claims regarding Georgian churches in Armenia and these issues need study and research by scientists."
But the dispute has already become political as well as religious. In recent weeks, hundreds of Armenians have participated in rallies in Yerevan to protest against the alleged destruction of Armenian cultural monuments in Georgia.
The dispute was also raised during a December visit by Armenian Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian to Georgia. Georgian Prime Minister Grigol Mgaloblishvili said after meeting his Armenian counterpart that he hoped no issues would be "politically exploited" to drive a wedge between the two peoples.
The issue is especially sensitive in Georgia, where interethnic conflicts in South Ossetia and another separatist region, Abkhazia, have left thousands dead. After the Abkhaz and Ossetians, Armenians are the third-largest ethnic minority in Georgia, with nearly 250,000 Armenians in the country of 4.3 million.