BY ALLEN YEKIKAN
LOS ANGELES–More than two thousand Armenian college students rallied at the United Nations office in Yerevan Tuesday to demonstrate against the growing wave of hate crimes against Armenian cultural and religious sites in Georgia, reported Armenpress.
The demonstrators were spurred by outrage over the desecration of tombstones in Tbilisi’s Norashen Church last month, when a Georgian Orthodox clergyman attempted to forcefully remove Armenian graves from the courtyard of the Church with a bulldozer.
On November 15, Father Tariel Sikinchelashvili and a retinue of workers and bulldozers entered the Norashen courtyard and set about removing two graves bearing the names of Mikayel and Lidia Tamamshyan. The group was soon stopped by a group of local Armenia’s who called the police.
The incident is the latest such attempt against the church, which was illegally fenced off earlier this year.
Several students protesting the incidents met with the Chief UN representative in Armenia, Conseulo Vidal, to discuss the matter. The group also delivered a letter of protest to UNESCO, the UN’s cultural arm, chronicling recent attempts to defile Armenian religious and cultural sites in Georgia.
The demonstrators then moved on to the Georgian embassy, where they handed Ambassador Reaz Gacheiladze a letter calling on the Georgian government to intervene on behalf of its Armenian minority. Describing the crimes as “behavior unfitting a civilized country,” the letter warned the “centuries old friendship between the two nations” is in danger unless the “illegal conduct of the Georgian clergymen be stopped and an appropriate assessment be given to what has happened."
Following the demonstration, Armenia’s Diaspora Minister, Hranoush Hakopyan, held a press conference to brief the media on the Armenian Government’s position on the violations.
She said the fate of Armenian historical and cultural monumen’s in Georgia is high on her ministry’s agenda, adding that Armenia’should protest the violations to international organizations.
“We should understand that the Armenian-Georgian friendly relations are very important for us. We do understand that this problem can damage our relations. But all should remember that a monk has no right to jeopardize them,” Hakopyan said, condemning the vandalism of the church.
The protests come less than two weeks after the Holy See of Etchmiadzin issued its own statement condemning the crimes.
Over the past 15 years, the Georgian clergy has occupied and consecrated several Armenian churches in Tbilisi–including Kusanats Surb Stepanos, St Bethlehem, the Khikhoy chapel, and several other churches. Many close to the situation say the same is expected to happen to Norashen.
Earlier in May, the Norashen Church was illegally fenced off by a group of workers, led by Sikinchelashvili. The group constructed a concrete-metal fence with wicket-gates along the whole perimeter of the church. The priest claimed Norashen belonged to the Georgian Church.
In 2005, Sikinchelashvili transported gravestones with Georgian inscriptions to the Norashen’s courtyard, while moving the Armenian gravestones that had been in the courtyard for centuries and vandalizing their inscriptions.
Earlier this year, Armenia’s Prime Minister, Tigran Sargsyan, met with his Georgian counterpart Lado Gurgenidze in Minsk for talks regarding the incident. Sargsyan told Gurgenidze that his country’s encroachment on the rights of an Armenian Church threatened to spur unnecessary tension in Georgian society, particularly among its large Armenian minority. The Armenian Premier stressed that such violations of the rights of the Georgian Diocese of the Armenian Church would have negative consequences and requested that Gurgenidze intervene in the matter.
Founded in 1467, Norashen is located in Tbilisi, on Leselidze Street, flanked on the left by a Greek church, now transformed into a Georgian orthodox one, on the right by the Georgian Church Sioni and a few more meters further down the synagogue the mosque.