KUMURDO, Georgia -- Bones discovered within the courtyard of 1,000-year-old Christian cathedral in southern Georgia have ignited tempers in the predominantly ethnic-Armenian village of Kumurdo.
Ethnic Armenians in the village, just 25 kilometers from Georgia’s borders with Armenia and Turkey, have long claimed that Kumurdo Cathedral is an Armenian church.
Those claims have metamorphosed into enflamed passions since Georgian archeologists, carrying out restoration work near the domeless ruin during the summer of 2016, discovered a large pile of bones that had been collected together and buried on the church grounds.
Kumurdo’s ethnic-Armenian villagers believe they are the bones of their ancestors, and they claim the restoration work being carried out by Georgia’s Culture Ministry is an attempt to erase what the villagers say is evidence of the church’s Armenian past.
Tempers came to a head during the September 30-October 1 weekend when villagers confronted restoration workers and Georgian Interior Ministry police who were guarding the protected historic site.
Aghunik Ayvazian, a journalist for the local news website Jnews.ge, told RFE/RL that clashes erupted after a group of women from the village tried to enter the church’s walled compound to light candles and pray there.
At the same time, a group of ethnic Armenian men from the village arrived in an attempt to erect a stone slab -- a grave stela known as a khachkar or a carved Armenian slab -- at the site.
Georgia’s Interior Ministry says the crowd of about 150 villagers began pelting police guards and their vehicles with stones after authorities stopped them from entering the church grounds.
Video of the altercation shows Interior Ministry police using batons against villagers who stormed into the church yard and were complaining that “the burial places of Armenians” were being desecrated.
Tempers calmed after Georgian Interior Minister Giorgi Mghebrishvili flew into Kumurdo and met with the angry villagers -- urging them to respect the law and promising to respond to their concerns and complaints.
As part of a deal aimed at soothing tensions, two village men who were arrested during the violent confrontation were released without charge.
Nikoloz Antidze, the head of Georgia’s National Agency for Cultural Heritage Preservation, promised villagers that a special place would be designated just outside the cathedral’s compound walls to erect a memorial.
The Armenian Foreign Ministry has confirmed that the issue of where to locate an Armenian stone cross near the burial site is being discussed by clergy from both Armenia and Georgia.
But Antidze insisted that erecting a stone stela within the churchyard itself would hinder restoration work and negatively affect Tbilisi’s attempts to have the cathedral registered on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
Georgia’s Culture Ministry denies allegations by villagers that bones in the churchyard are being removed, insisting that the work is aimed only at restoring the church and its wall inscriptions.
Vahram Baghdasarian, a senior lawmaker from Armenia’s ruling Republican Party, told RFE/RL that the violence in Kumurdo cannot be allowed to damage relations between Tbilisi and Yerevan.
Speaking in Yerevan, Baghdasarian told RFE/RL that the church’s burial site was a “mixed cemetery” and that some remains are, indeed, those of Kumordo’s ethnic Armenian ancestors.
But Baghdarsarian also said Kumurdo’s ethnic Armenian residents are wrong when they claim the cathedral is an Armenian church.
In fact, the Armenian Apostolic Church does not openly claim Kumurdo Cathedral.
Georgian Caucasus expert Mamuka Areshidze suggested the villagers have been provoked by someone who wrongly told them that inscriptions on the cathedral walls are in an ancient Armenian script -- a script that they are unable to read.
The patriarchate of the Georgian Orthodox Church says the stone inscriptions were carved in the Asomtavruli script, one of three writing systems used to write the Georgian language as early as the 5th century.
Asomtavruli looks similar to ancient Armenian, which also was developed in the 5th century.
UNESCO recognizes the Asomtavruli script as an intangible “living culture” -- noting that it is now used only by the Georgian Orthodox Church in ceremonial religious texts and iconography.
According to the Georgian Orthodox Church, Kumurdo Cathedral’s ancient inscriptions declare the church was built by Ione the Bishop and completed in A.D. 964, during the reign of the Leon III, the king of Abkhazia.
At the time, the Kingdom of Abkhazia was a medieval feudal state under Byzantine authority. It was united with the Kingdom of Georgia in 1008 through dynastic succession.
Written by RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz in Prague with reporting by RFE/RL’s Armenian Service correspondent Ruzanna Stepanian in Yerevan and RFE/RL’s Georgian Service.