Georgian and Armenian Church leaders still seeking a solution for disputed churches
Georgian and Armenian Church leaders still seeking a solution for
By Etuna Tsotniashvili
Thursday, November 3
What is the situation in the dispute between Georgia and Armenia on the
issues of Georgian churches on Armenian territory? This issue has been
activated recently and today the disagreement has boiled up to both the
Georgian and Armenian Patriarchates.
To raise public interest in the disputed churches in Georgia, a local
NGO called Multinational Georgia, and with the support of Armenian
Embassy and Armenian Assembly, organized a tour for Georgian historians
and media representatives to the Debed Gorge in Armenia where two 13th
century churches are located. Georgian historians say that based on the
architecture, frescoes and graves with Georgian-alphabet inscriptions
that the churches of Akhtala and Kobair are of Georgian origin. Both
Akhtala and Kobair are now on Armenia’s territory and both are disputed
subjects between the two countries.
Akhtala is located in the Lori Province on the left bank of the Debed
River. On October 30, a Sunday, four or five people were in the church,
lighting candles. There were no signs of giving mass or a sermon as it
is traditional in Christian churches, however. In the yard of the church
a rock band was playing, which caused some surprise, however I was told
that a music clip was being shot and in Armenian churches they have
liberal approach so it isn't unusual to play noisy music in the yard of
an old church. The musicians were Americans, of Armenian origin.
The locals know that this church is the subject of dispute, however they
unanimously stressed that Georgians and Armenians should solve all such
problems in a friendly way. “We, the local population, know that they
are Georgian churches, but I don't have much information about it. In
our region both Georgians and Armenians live together and we have good
relations with each other. We go to church from time to time, light
candles and pray,” said Anait Taamryan to The Messenger. However on the
question if sermons are held in the church regularly she had no
information. “I do not know--maybe yes,” she answered in the local way.
Historian Eldar Bubulashvili told the journalists visiting the church
that the Akhtala Monastery was founded in the 13th century by Ioane
Mkhargrdzeli, who is buried there. The unique frescos here include those
with St. Nino and St Mariam, which are very interesting.
As the local priest of Akhtala Church, Vazgen Kirakosian said, mass in
the Akhtala Church was restored two years ago and is conducted in
Armenian. However, the Georgian Patriarchate's representatives say that
this is a violation of an agreement between the two churches.
Representative of youth movement Davitiani at the Georgian Patriarchate,
Kote Svanadze, said that there was an agreement between the two
patriarchates to halt any masses given in disputed churches until this
issue is solved. However the agreement is being violated since in
Akhtala the sermon is held in Armenian while rehabilitation works are
being carried out in the Kobair church a few kilometres away.
“We only give mass and serve in the church; we are not supposed to
discuss issues that have to be decided between two countries. Whatever I
may answer to your questions is my personal opinion and not the official
position,” Vazgen Kirakosian said.
The renovation of the Kobair church, which is in extremely poor
condition, is also a subject of disagreement. Some analysts say that
this violates the agreement between the two Patriarchates, as it was not
agreed with Georgian Church whether the Armenian Church could begin
restoration. The walls of the church are in ruins and cold weather is
damaging the unique frescos.
The Vice Mayor of Alaverdi, Artur Kharatian, said: “I think this is an
issue historians should discuss. It is not easy to give an answer on
church ownership, but I can say one thing for sure--that this issue
should not cause confrontation between two nations!”
“Armenians do not dispute that the churches are Orthodox, however there
is disagreement on whether the churches were built by the Armenian
Orthodox or Georgian Orthodox people. At an epoch when those churches
were being built, the Debed gorge was included in Georgia’s territory
and Georgians were living here. Evidence of this are the graves of
people with Georgian inscriptions, and the fact that Georgian Church
jurisdiction included these churches,” said historian Jaba Samushia. He
said that today what is most important is that the churches be saved
because as time passes the weather is destroying them.
Arnold Stepanyan, Chairman of Multinational Georgia said negotiations
have begun on three disputed churches, those of Akhtala, Kobair and
Khujabi. Some progress has been reached in for Khujabi and Kobair and
discussions are also in progress on six Armenian churches located in
“I think both sides should find certain compromises and agree on
specific issues. The negotiations must continue so issues are solved
peacefully,” Stepanyan said. “We should try to do everything for the
sake of our nations. This is very sensitive issue and we want to restore
friendship between the two Churches,” he added.