AKHALTSKHA, Javakhk (Akhaltskha.net, RFE/RL)—His Holiness Karekin II, Catholicos of All Armenian Monday arrived in Javakhk, where he kicked off his two-day historic visit in the Akhaltskha region.
Karekin II, who was accompanied by a Georgian delegation headed by Patriarch Illia II, became the first Catholicos since Khrimian Hayrig to visit the predominantly Armenian Javakhk region.
Upon arriving in Javakhk, Karekin II was greeted by people of Akhaltskh at the Queen Tamara square, where both religious leaders addressed the crowd. The delegation then headed to the St. Gregory the Illuminator Church, where they were greeted by members of the Akhaltskha Armenian Cultural and Educational Center members dressed in traditional Armenian costumes.
After the traditional blessing of bread and salt, the Cultural Center members performed traditional Armenian dances.
A Mass was officiated by the Catholicos at the church, where Ilia II also offered his blessings.
The delegation then headed to Hovannes Toumanian Armenian School, where a tour of the facilities acquainted the Catholicos with school activities.
A reception, organized by local officials, was held later in the evning.
The Catholicos arrived in the Georgian capital Tbilisi Friday, where he met with Georgian officials, including President Mikheil Saakashvili and held meetings with Illia II. The two pontiffs held a more detailed discussion in the presence of high-ranking Armenian and Georgian clerics on Saturday, reported RFE/RL.
Karekin II expressed his satisfaction with the meetings as he and Ilia made public statements at the Georgian patriarch’s official residence in Tbilisi.
In a separate statement, the Catholicos’s press office said the two sides agreed that the Georgian authorities should finally grant a “legal status” to the local diocese of the Armenian Church. Like Georgia’s other minority denominations, the diocese has no official registration and is therefore not treated by the Georgian authorities as a single legal entity.
The statement said the parties also agreed on the need to grant an official status to “the Georgian religious community in Armenia.” It was not clear if it referred to Armenia’s tiny ethnic Georgian community or Armenian adherents of Greek Orthodox faith that were subordinate to the Georgian Church during the Middle Ages. Very little is known about them at present.
Ilia II cited Saakashvili as saying that the Armenian Church should have the same status in Georgia as the Georgian Church in Armenia. The patriarch backed this position.
According to Catholicos’s office, the Georgian side also pledged to preserve several medieval churches previously used by the Georgian-Armenian community “until their return to the diocese.” “The issue of the return of the churches will be discussed at the next stage,” read its statement.
Karekin II visited two of those churches located in Tbilisi later on Saturday. One of them partly crumbled last year, while the other was severely damaged by a fire in 2001.
The Catholicos did not inspect another, more famous Tbilisi church built in the 15th century and known as Norashen. It has been the largest source of tensions between the two ancient Christian institutions.
Ilia II, meanwhile, pressed Georgian claims to several medieval and mostly abandoned churches located in Armenia’s northern Lori province.
“When talking about churches, one must not forget that both sides have demands,” said Ilia II. “Both sides have facts and documents regarding Armenian churches in Georgia and Georgian churches in Armenia.”
Ilia II proposed that the two sides set up a joint commission of scholars who would look into the matter and propose solutions. Karekin said the Armenian Church supports the idea in principle.
Both catholicoses stressed that these disputes should not damage relations between the two neighboring states. “Our peoples are bound by numerous spiritual, cultural and historical links contrary to theological differences between our Churches that emerged as a result of historical developments,” said Karekin II.