Some 650 Armenian churches are registered in the territory of Georgia. In Tiflis alone there were 29 Armenian churches during the 19th century. But today only two remain, while the property rights of six churches expropriated during the Soviet era remains unresolved.
The future is uncertain for Saint Norashen in Tbilisi, Saint Nshan, Shamkhoretsots Holy Mother of God (or Karmir Avetaran, Yerevantsots Saint Minas, Moughni Saint Gevorg, and Saint Nshan in Samtske-Javakhk
The Norashen Sourb Astvatzatzin Church (Holy Mother of God) is located in a central and ancient neighborhood of Tbilisi, next to Meydan Square, in Leselidze Street, in the vicinity of Saint Sion, the Georgian Primate’s Residence and the Greek Jvaris Mama Church. The name Norashen is of Armenian extraction and signifies ‘newly constructed.’
The Norashen Holy Mother of God Church was constructed in 1467 by a person called Sadab, as a memorial for the spouse of his father’s grandfather, Tavakal; Vishel, Nariman, Shariman and others. In 1650 Khoja Nazar rebuilt the church already in ruins. The dome was built by Ousta Petros. Historical records show that the church was constantly being repaired by Armenians in 1795 by a decree of Behboudyan Melik-Avetik and at the urging of Father Grigor, in 1808, under the direction of broker/agent Ter-Ghazar and Baron Mountoyan, especially after the destructive raids of Agha Mahmad Khan.
With the permission of Catholicos Nerses, the steeple of the church was repaired in 1875 and renovation work inside the church took place in 1897 and 1900. In writings left by visiting Armenians and foreigners the Norashen church is mentioned as one of the most prominent Armenian churches in ‘Tpghis’. Even Georgian researchers didn’t hide this fact until 1989.
Countless generations of Tbilisi Armenians have been baptized in Norashen and many notable citizens of Tiflis are buried in its courtyard–the remains of princes Toumanov, Tamashen, Vartanov, and Pridonyan. Here too rest the remains of Archpriest Bajbeouk-Melikov.
Up till 1931 during the Soviet era the Norashen Holy Church fell under the jurisdiction of the Diocesan Council. Afterwards the church was transformed into a book depository. In 1962, the Norashen ancient library was ranked third after those in Moscow and Kiev.
The ‘Georgianization’ of the church
‘Improvements’ to the Norashen Holy Mother of God Church began in 1983, during renovations to the vicinity of the church and Leselidz Street carried out by employees of the Georgian Head Division of Monuments Preservation under the supervision of Sh. Kavlashvili, the city’s chief architect. The church’s northern entrance was torn down as an ‘architectural redundancy’. In 1989 Jansouk Babounashvili, Deputy Director of the Department of Monuments Preservation, was the first top official to declare that the Norashen church was actually a Georgian Orthodox Church built in the 13th century.
Encroachments on Norashen assumed a continuous nature as of 1994. On November 29th that year books started to be removed from the church. In response, a group of Armenian intellectuals traveled to Tbilisi and met with Teodoros Jokhadze, Secretary to Georgian Catholicos Ilia. Secretary Jokhadze told them that the existence of an Armenian church in the proximity of the Georgian Sion Holy See was not permissible. “We must make it Georgian,” stated the Catholicos’ Secretary.
On February 15, 1995, members of the Georgian clergy consecrated the church according to Georgian church ritual, renaming it ‘Khareba’ (the Promised/Annunciated). As of 1994, and especially from 1995 till today, ‘renovation’ work has been underway resulting in the removal of its Armenian elements, the baptismal font, elevated bema (sanctuary), stone-crosses affixed to the walls, Armenian language inscriptions, frescoes, etc.
As a result of research carried out by Samvel Karapetyan, the head of the “Armenian Architecture Research” NGO, all churches in Georgia have undergone the process of ‘Georgianization’ under the pretext of renovation and according to specific methods. Thus, the altar of an Armenian Church is 80 centimeters higher than the nave which has two sets of stairs leading to the altar. The Georgian Church, along with Greek and orthodox churches in general, have no such fixture.
In their attempts to take over Armenian churches the Georgians first tear down the bema and level it off with dirt. In the north wall of Armenian churches there is the baptismal font which is usually made of one complete stone. The Georgian Church also celebrates the sacrament of baptism but theirs is a mobile basin. Thus, they destroy the Armenian baptismal font. Next comes a removal of all the engraved and lithographed inscriptions and wall frescoes.
On March 13, 1995, at the invitation of the Georgian Armenian community, Archbishops Garegin and Grigoris along with Father Yzras and Human Rights Committee President R. Papayan traveled to Tbilisi. They met with Catholicos Ilia II and agreed to close the church for a given period and create a special group of Armenian and Georgian experts to study the question of the church’s ownership. Till today, they still haven’t done so.
The odyssey of Father Tariel Sikinchelashvili
In the spring of 2005 a new cemetery including five tombstones with Georgian inscriptions turned up next to the southern wall of the Norashen church. One was a gravestone of a certain individual named Maghlakelidze, who died in 1874.
Karapetyan notes that according to one research study delineating the place of residence of various Georgian patriarchal ancestral lines in Georgia, the Maghlakekidze clan only resided in a few settlements in all of Georgia, including the village of Mleti in the Doushet region, where Father Tariel was the priest before being appointed the parish pastor at the ‘Georgianized’ Greek Jvaris Mama Church.
“It follows from this that the Georgian gravestones brought to Norashen to assist in the process of ‘Georgianization’ were transported by Father Tariel from the cemetery under his care in the village of Mleti,” according to Karapetyan.
The encroachments continue
In May, 2008, under the direct supervision of Father Tariel Sikinchelashvili of the Georgian Orthodox Church a fence around Norashen started being erected, decorated exclusively with motifs and crosses unique to the Georgian Church. Following numerous protests by the Armenian community, the Tbilisi Municipality passed a decision to remove the fencing on October 22nd. But that decision has still to be enforced. In fact, the wall is still being built.
Finally, on November 16th, under the supervision of Father Tariel, representatives of the Georgian Orthodox Church used a bulldozer to dislocate and remove the tombstones of Mikayel Ivan Tamamshyan and Lidia Petros Tamamshyan that have lain in the Norashen church courtyard–gravestones that have been in the courtyard for more than a century. Father Tariel justified his actions by saying that he was attempting “to improve the environs of the church and to ‘remove rubbish’ from the site on his personal initiative”.
As a result of the efforts of the Armenian community the gravestones were restored to their original site and the heavy machinery removed from church grounds. But Father Tariel was never penalized for his actions. This last incident received a great deal of press coverage and the ensuing reaction was widespread. Georgian news services have always portrayed the issue of the Armenian churches as one in which Armenians make various claims regarding Georgian churches without any evidence pointing to the Armenian origins of the churches. Regarding the latest incidents at the Norashen church, the Georgian media writes that the activism of the Armenians is spurred by Russia, especially after the recent Georgian-Russian war.
Clamor was raised during previous incidents as well and the result was the removal of the gravestones. Accusations were directed not only at Georgian authorities and the Georgian Church for their hostile behavior but also at the authorities in Armenia and the Holy See at Etchmaidzin for its passive stance regarding the matter. The Tiflis Armenian community has also been criticized for its inaction on the matter.