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Armenian Church Leader On Landmark Visit To Georgia

Armenian Church Leader Visits Georgia
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WATCH: Armenia's visiting Catholicos Garegin II traveled by foot across the Georgian-Armenian border on June 10. (Video by RFE/RL's Georgian Service)

TBILISI -- The head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Catholicos Garegin II, has begun a weeklong visit to Georgia which the church hopes will help resolve disputes with the Georgian government and Georgian Orthodox Church over the country's Armenian religious heritage, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reports.

Garegin was greeted by the Georgian Catholicos Patriarch Ilia II and several hundred mostly ethnic Armenian believers as he crossed the Armenian-Georgian border on foot on June 10.

The two officials met with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili later in the day, following an official reception organized by Ilia in Tbilisi's St. Trinity Cathedral.

"We are going to discuss issues preoccupying our churches and talk about ways of strengthening our cooperation," Garegin said at the ceremony, attended by hundreds of people. "We have come here with a robust spirit and a belief that our meeting will strengthen the centuries-old brotherhood and friendship of our peoples."

One of those issues is the status of six worship sites that Georgia's Armenian community and its spiritual leaders have been trying to regain since the Soviet collapse. The Georgian Orthodox Church has insisted on their Georgian origin with the tacit backing of successive governments in Tbilisi.

The biggest source of Georgian-Armenian tensions is a 15th-century Tbilisi church known as Norashen.

In 2005, the Armenian Apostolic Church accused a Georgian priest of erasing its Armenian frescos and inscriptions and placing Georgian tombstones in the church's courtyard to prepare 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 talks.

Catholicos Garegin II and Catholicos Ilia II in Tbilisi on June 10
Armenian Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian publicly challenged Georgian claims to Norashen by lighting candles and praying there with members of Tbilisi's Armenian community during a December 2008 visit to Georgia.

There were more than 20 Armenian Apostolic churches in Tbilisi in the late 19th century, 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 currently controlled by the Armenian Church.

One of those churches, St. Echmiadzin, has just undergone capital repairs. Garegin was due to reinaugurate it on June 12.

Another bone of contention is the status of the Armenian Church's Georgia Diocese. Like Georgia's other minority denominations, it has no official registration and is therefore not treated by the Georgian authorities as a single legal entity.

The head of the diocese, Bishop Vazgen Mirzakhanian, expressed hope that Garegin would convince Georgia's political and spiritual leaders to address the issue.

"There are two options," he told RFE/RL. "Either the Georgian parliament adopts a law on religion...or the government signs an agreement with the [Armenian] community whereby the Armenian Diocese of Georgia will be recognized as an heir to the spiritual and historical heritage of all Georgian Armenians."

But Van Bayburt, a Georgian-Armenian leader who advises Saakashvili on minority affairs, played down the importance of official registration. "The lack of it doesn't prevent an ordinary believer from entering a church, lighting candles, and praying there," he said.

"The issue is too politicized, not by church figures but some of Armenia's and Georgia's neighbors," Bayburt told RFE/RL in an apparent reference to Russia.

Bishop Mirzakhanian sounded cautious about the chances of the two sides finding mutually acceptable solutions during Garegin's visit. "There is no agreement yet on any particular issue," he said.

The visit was originally scheduled to take place in June 2010. The Georgian Church repeatedly postponed it, citing Ilia's poor health.

Together with the long-serving Georgian patriarch, Garegin was planning to travel on June 13 to Georgia's Javakheti region -- which is mostly populated by ethnic Armenians -- and spend three days there.

He would become the first supreme head of the Armenian Apostolic Church to set foot in the area in more than a century.

"This is a source of great joy for us," said Father Babken Salbiyan, an Armenian priest in Javakheti.