YEREVAN (RFE/RL)—The spiritual leaders of Armenia and Georgia have failed to reach any concrete agreements on disputes between their state-backed churches after nearly one week of negotiations held during Catholicos Karekin II’s visit to Georgia.
The supreme head of the Armenian Apostolic Church and Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II of the Georgian Orthodox Church publicly disagreed on the main sticking points as they wrapped up the talks late on Wednesday.
Karekin II began the trip last Friday in the hope of convincing Georgia’s political and religious leadership to grant an official status to the Georgia Diocese of the Armenian Church and return several churches in and outside Tbilisi to the latter. Karekin II’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.”
However, no agreements or joint declarations were signed as a result. Speaking to journalists in Georgia’s Javakheti region mostly populated by ethnic Armenians, the two pontiffs said they failed to work out a mutually acceptable document. “I think that we are saying the same things but with different wordings,” said Ilia.
Ilia insisted that the Armenian Church should gain official recognition in Georgia only if the Georgian Church is granted the same status in Armenia. Karekin II 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.
Contradicting Saakashvili’s assurances reportedly given to Karekin II, 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.
The elderly patriarch 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 worship sites, saying that they were built and always used by Armenian adherents of the Greek Orthodox faith.
“Of course, restoration of historical monuments must be an obligation of the two states, but one must first of all ascertain their origin,” said Karekin II.
Asked by RFE/RL’s Armenian service whether the Georgian Church is ready to substantiate its claims with documentary evidence, Ilia replied, “Yes, we are ready.”
The Georgian Church proposed that the two sides form a joint commission of scholars and historians for that purpose. The proposal was not accepted by Karekin II.
“We replied that they should first present necessary facts as to what exactly the commission should investigate,” said the Armenian Catholicos. “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 these disputes.