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Armenian, Georgian Churches Fail To Settle Disputes

Catholicos of All Armenians Garegin II (left) and Catholicos Patriarch of All Georgia Ilia II
Catholicos of All Armenians Garegin II (left) and Catholicos Patriarch of All Georgia Ilia II
YEREVAN -- The historic meeting of Armenian and Georgian religious leaders in Georgia did not result in any concrete agreements on disputes between the quasi-official churches after nearly one week of talks, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reports.

The visit to Georgia by Armenian Catholicos Garegin II, head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, was the first time in a century the leader of the Armenian Church had visited Georgia.

But Garegin's meetings with Catholicos Patriarch Ilia II of the Georgian Orthodox Church ended in public disagreement on the main agenda issues as they wrapped up their talks in Georgia late on June 15.

Garegin began the trip on June 10 in the hope of convincing Georgia's political and religious leadership to grant official status to the Georgia diocese of the Armenian Church and return several churches in and outside Tbilisi. Some 3.9 percent of Georgia's 4.6 million people belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church.

Garegin's office said after his weekend meeting with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili that the Georgian side agreed to register the diocese and pledged to preserve the churches "until their return to the diocese."

But no agreements or joint declarations were signed as a result.

In Georgia's Javakheti region -- which is mostly populated by ethnic Armenians -- the two religious leaders said they failed to work out a mutually acceptable document. "I think that we are saying the same things but with different wordings," Ilia said.

Ilia insisted the Armenian Church should gain official recognition in Georgia only if the Georgian Church is granted the same status in Armenia. Garegin countered that Armenia's small ethnic Georgian community, numbering less than 1,000 people, never applied for such a status.

He argued that Armenian law provides for the easy registration of religious minorities.

Restoration Of Churches Remains An Issue

Contradicting the assurances that Saakashvili reportedly gave to Garegin, Ilia also stated that "Armenian churches will be repaired in case of the restoration of Georgian churches in Armenia. If Georgia restores Armenian churches, then Armenia must repair and preserve Georgian churches as well," he said.

Ilia referred to several medieval and mostly abandoned churches located in Armenia's northern Lori Province. The area was for centuries controlled by Georgian kings through their Armenian vassals. Some of those noble families were members of the Georgian Church.

The Armenian Church disputes Georgian claims to these churches, saying they were built and always used by Armenian adherents of the Greek Orthodox Church.

"Of course, restoration of historical monuments must be an obligation of the two states, but one must first of all ascertain their origin," said Garegin.

Ilia told RFE/RL that the Georgian Church is ready to substantiate its claims for the churches.

The Georgian Church proposed that the two sides form a joint commission of scholars and historians for that purpose. That proposal was not accepted by Garegin.

"We replied that they should first present necessary facts as to what exactly the commission should investigate," he said. "An appropriate decision [on whether to set up such a body] would be made after that."

Both religious leaders stressed that the two churches will continue to seek a negotiated solution to their disputes.