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Violence flares over Armenian cross-stone in southern Georgia church

2 October 2017
(Samkhretis Karibche)

Clashes between locals and police in a village in southern Georgia have left several people injured, including police.

The confrontation in Kumurdo, a predominantly ethnic Armenian village in Samtskhe–Javakheti region, began early on 30 September after police prevented a group of local people from installing a cross-stone to mark a grave in a local churchyard. The 10th century church is undergoing restoration.

According to local news site Jnews, after restorations began in the summer of 2016, a common burial site with the remains of several people was found at the site. At the request of local people, the remains were reburied in the churchyard.

Trouble broke out on 30 September after a group of people tried to enter the churchyard to install a khachkar — an Armenian cross-stone  —  to mark the grave. The group claimed the remains belonged to their relatives.

Police, who had been guarding the church during renovations, denied them entry.

Police response

After the group refused to leave, riot police were called in and a physical confrontation ensued. During the clashes, people threw stones at police leading to damage to a number of cars. Two men were detained and taken to a local police station.

Video by Jnews showing the beginning of the clashes.

Georgia’s Interior Minister Giorgi Mghebrishvili rushed to Kumurdo the same day, and according to Samkhretis Karibche, met with locals to defuse the situation. Media were barred from attending the meeting.

Mghebrishvili reportedly promised to release the two detained people if the crowd dispersed.

Following the meeting, Mghebrishvili, along with the riot police left Kumurdo and the pair were released from police custody. The crowd soon dispersed after this.

The Interior Ministry have launched a criminal investigation over the violence for disobeying police, damage or destruction of property, and hooliganism.

Ashot Saaryan, a candidate for upcoming elections to the Akhalkalaki City Council (Sakrebulo) who had been attempting to mediate the dispute, said on 1 October that the situation was calm. Samkhretis Karibche quoted Saaryan as saying that restoration works were continuing.

Anti-Armenian sentiment

(Samkhretis Karibche)

Coverage of the news stirred anti-Armenian sentiment from a number of far-right commentators and outlets, with many claiming that Armenians were attempting to ‘take over a Georgian church’.

The Ministry of Culture has denied that any talks have taken place over ownership of the church, claiming the dispute was about the khachkar alone.

The minister said the leaderships of the Georgian Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic churches would have to resolve the issue of the khachkar.

Nikoloz Antadze, head of Georgia’s State Agency for Cultural Heritage Preservation under the ministry said a place will be chosen for the khachkar outside the churchyard.

Antadze told Netgazeti the church, built in 964, is of ‘chrestomathic heritage of Georgian architecture […] with Georgian inscriptions, Georgian ornaments’.

‘The restoration works will continue so I don’t think there will be a problem’, Antadze told journalists in Kumurdo on 30 September. ‘We talked to locals and agreed that a proper place will be chosen for the khachkar’, he added.

Ethnic Armenians make up 4.5% of Georgia’s population, mostly concentrated in the Samtskhe–Javakheti region, bordering Armenia, and the capital Tbilisi.

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