Speaking in Tbilisi’s St. Trinity Cathedral on Sunday, Ilia attributed the failure of the two pontiffs to settle disputes between their churches to Garegin’s perceived young age.
“Garegin is young and apparently lacks experience,” the 78-year-old head of the Georgian Orthodox Church was reported to say. “He is intelligent but wants to do things quickly, which will not work. I told him that I have a 30-year experience and that staying calm is the best thing.”
Senior clerics at the Armenian Church’s Mother See in Echmiadzin, a town 20 kilometers south of Yerevan, denounced these remarks.
“Considering the logic of the ethics of relations between church heads, it is inappropriate to make such statements,” said Bishop Arshak Khachatrian, the Mother See chancellor. “I will refrain from making further comments.”
The bitter exchange highlights lingering tensions between the two churches that center on ownership of Christian worship sites located in Georgia and Armenia. Garegin, who has headed the Armenian Church 1999 and will turn 60 in August, hoped to ease those tensions when he began a weeklong visit to Georgia on June 10. But he and Ilia failed to reach any concrete agreements.
Ilia insisted last week that the Armenian Church should gain official recognition in Georgia only if the Georgian Church is granted the same status in Armenia. He also effectively dismissed Armenian demands for the unconditional return of six mostly derelict churches in and outside Tbilisi that used to belong to Echmiadzin. He said they should be repaired only “in case of the restoration of Georgian churches in Armenia.”
The Georgian patriarch referred to several medieval and mostly abandoned churches located in Armenia’s northern Lori province. The Armenian Church disputes Georgian claims to these churches, saying that they were built and always used by Armenian adherents of the Greek Orthodox denomination.
Archbishop Yeznik Petrosian, another senior Echmiadzin cleric, claimed that the Georgian side is exploiting the uncertain status of the Lori churches as a bargaining chip in the long-running negotiations on Armenian religious heritage in Georgia. “This is an artificially created situation,” he said at a joint news conference with Bishop Khachatrian.
“My impression is that there is too much intolerance and manifestations of extremism in the Georgian Church,” Khachatrian charged for his part. “I cannot explain the reasons for that.”