08TBILISI2411, GEORGIA: ARMENIAN NORASHEN CHURCH – CONCERNS

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Reference ID Created Released Classification Origin
08TBILISI2411 2008-12-17 14:44 2011-08-30 01:44 CONFIDENTIAL Embassy Tbilisi

VZCZCXRO8556
OO RUEHFL RUEHKW RUEHLA RUEHNP RUEHROV RUEHSR
DE RUEHSI #2411/01 3521444
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
O 171444Z DEC 08
FM AMEMBASSY TBILISI
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 0586
INFO RUEHZL/EUROPEAN POLITICAL COLLECTIVE PRIORITY

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 TBILISI 002411 
 
SIPDIS 
 
E.O. 12958: DECL: 12/16/2018 
TAGS: PREL PHUM PGOV AR GG
SUBJECT: GEORGIA:  ARMENIAN NORASHEN CHURCH - CONCERNS 
CONTINUE THOUGH RENOVATIONS HAVE STOPPED 
 
Classified By: Ambassador John F. Tefft for reasons 1.4 (b) and (d). 
 
1.  (C) Summary:  The latest in a series of disputes between 
the Armenian Apostolic Church (AAC) and the Georgian Orthodox 
Church (GOC) ignited November 18 when a construction crew 
using a bulldozer, hired by a Georgian Orthodox priest, moved 
the headstones of several Armenian graves at Norashen Church 
in old town Tbilisi.  The Georgian priest told emboffs he was 
merely trying to clean up the church courtyard, which is next 
to a Georgian Orthodox Church.  The Armenia community, 
however, has expressed serious concern, especially regarding 
the moving of headstones which they termed "desecration." 
The Armenian community had also expressed concern in June 
regarding the encircling of both the Georgian and Norashen 
church by a fence, again constructed by the same Georgian 
Orthodox priest and displaying a St. Nino's Cross.  Both the 
Georgian and Armenia priests involved have confirmed that 
after the initial complaint, the bulldozer was removed and 
that all gravestones were returned to their original 
locations.  During a December 9 visit to Tbilisi to discuss 
the regional economy, Armenian Prime Minister Sargsyan 
discussed the Norashen Church issue with Georgian President 
Saakashvili and Prime Minister Mgaloblishvili, as well as 
visited the church with his Georgian counterpart.  In press 
statemens, the two prime ministers stressed the historical 
ties between the two churches, as well as supported an idea 
to foster dialogue between the two religions.  End Summary. 
 
2.  (U) The Norashen Church, located on Leselidze Street in 
Old Town of Tbilisi, is currently unoccupied.   Adjoining the 
Norashen church is a Georgian church.  There is a long 
running dispute between the two churches over the GOC's 
construction of a fence around Norashen that encloses it 
together with the smaller neighboring Georgian church. 
Georgian church officials characterize their efforts as 
sprucing up the area, by erecting a fence to keep out 
derelicts, planting flowers and hiring a company with a 
bulldozer to cart off piles of leaves and trash.  Armenian 
Church officials see these efforts as an attempt to 
"Georgianize" a church which is rightfully theirs, with each 
of these steps as part of a larger political move to 
marginalize them.  Emboffs have visited the site:  the fence 
displays a large Christian cross and a St. Nino's cross.   It 
is visible that the gravestones have been moved, and a large 
pile of rubble remains sitting on top of one of the graves. 
Although Armenian Church officials have expressed concern 
that the fence may eventually be used to deter their entry, 
Emboffs found there were at least three separate entrances, 
all unlocked.  To date, there is no barrier to visiting the 
Norashen Church. 
 
3.  (C) Armenian Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan visited 
Tbilisi on December 9 to participate in the seventh session 
of the Armenian-Georgian Intergovernmental Commission for 
Economic Cooperation.  He raised the issue of the Norashen 
church with both PM Mgaloblishvili and President Saakashvili, 
as well as paid a visit to the church.  In a joint press 
conference, the two prime ministers stressed that the 
Armenian and Georgian churches are linked by centuries-old 
friendly ties.  They emphasized the importance of the 
initiative of the Patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church 
to form a joint commission to discuss issues connected with 
Norashen and other Armenian churches, where all problems will 
be discussed and addressed via dialogue.  Armenian Priest 
Qbe discussed and addressed via dialogue.  Armenian Priest 
Narek Kushyan told Emboffs that the AAC has been patient, but 
unless there is resolution of the issues surrounding the 
Norashen Church, there is concern that parishioners, who are 
angered by GOC actions, may resort to violence.  Public 
officials, such as the Ombudsman, who have spoken out in 
support of finding resolution of Armenian Church issues have 
been painted as "anti-church" and "anti-Georgian."  The 
Orthodox Church has very strong support among Georgians, and 
therefore, the Saakashvili administration has, as a matter 
course, a close relationship with the church.  However, the 
government is reluctant to speak out against the church as it 
could result in a significant political backlash against the 
government, something the GOG does not want to risk. 
 
4.  (C)  The latest incident reflects underlying tensions 
over the law on church registration in Georgia and the return 
of disputed churches between the AAC and GOC.  President 
Saakashvili and the Orthodox Patriarch signed a Concordat in 
2005 which gave the Georgian Orthodox Church special legal 
status.  Other churches in Georgia may register as a union or 
a foundation and receive tax exempt status, but cannot 
register as a church.  For the AAC and some other faiths, 
including Lutherans and Muslims, this is unacceptable and 
they remain unregistered (septel).  The Roman Catholic Church 
has decided to register partially; it has registered its 
charitable organiza
tions as an NGO called "the Association of 
Saint Joseph."  The Ambassador regularly raises this issue 
with senior Georgian Government officials and the Patriarch, 
 
TBILISI 00002411  002 OF 002 
 
 
and will do so again before year's end (to be reported 
septel). 
TEFFT

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