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Father Michael: “We Must Achieve Agreements on Common Peace”


Father Michael
Natia Gogolashvili

Neither Orthodox Church nor Catholic Church considers ownership over the Kutaisi Annunciation Church and Batumi Nativity Church to be disputable. Both claim the churches are their properties. Similar relation is between Armenian Apostolic Church and Georgian Orthodox Church. Humanrights.ge interviewed secretary of the Georgian Patriarchate Father Michael (Botkoveli) about these issues. 

-Kutaisi Annunciation Church and Batumi Nativity Church, which are now under ownership of the Orthodox Church of Georgia, are constructed in accordance to Catholic architecture. Besides that, reportedly the church in Batumi was constructed early in 20th century by famous Maecenas Stepane Zubalashvili, who was Catholic. In 1989, during the Soviet Union, when soviet authority made decisions, both churches were assigned to the Orthodox Church. How do you evaluate these decisions now?

- I agree with you; visually those churches really resemble catholic churches but if we make historical analysis, we will understand the reality.  During Bolshevik regime, orthodox parish was most victimized. Bolsheviks left only 50 out of 3 000 functioning orthodox churches in Georgia. The rest were destroyed, transformed or closed and big part of clergies was killed. At the end of the Bolshevik governance, churches were spontaneously assigned to owners. At that time, there were very few of Catholics and people of other religions. So, it was not necessary to assign any temple to them. Consequently, they were assigned to the Georgian Patriarchy where we conduct religious services nowadays.

Of course, talks about ownership are still ongoing. We meet representatives of all churches, who claim these temples as theirs. The Patriarchate is not against dialogue. It is important to estimate the historical truth but we cannot rely only on architecture of the building. So we propose to establish two-party commission, which will be composed of Orthodox clergymen and the representatives of the religion groups, who argue about properties in Georgia. Architects, historians and archeologists will also join the commission. Thus, we will succeed to reach agreement.

-What is the position of the Patriarchate about Norasheni Church, which is being rehabilitated now? In fact, even after the reconstruction, issue of its ownership will stay unresolved.

- Nobody can insist that it is Armenian Church. It is good that archeological excavations are going on there and we will have a result. Roots of our historical problems lay in the certain period of time when Armenians used to purchase temples in Tbilisi. How can over 600 churches be Armenian in Georgia?! They claim that they have so many churches and for that reason it is very difficult to dialogue with them. They have very unrealistic claims. Their requirements about ownership of churches in Georgia are beyond all critics. We try to continue dialogue and be constructive. Although the process is painful, I see its necessity. I do not know when we have results but the dialogue and cooperation gives us opportunity of peaceful life. These topics are so sensitive, decision-making process is so complicated that it is impossible to resolve all these problems promptly and in short time. 

- One of the main reasons of the recent controversies between Orthodox and Muslim communities has been historical building in Mokhe village of Adigeni municipality. Special commission was established to study this case several months ago and you are also member of the Commission. Please tell us what was done by commission until now?

- There is still tension about this building. The State Agency of Religions established the Commission more than one year ago but we could not achieve agreement so far. Of course, when you look at the building, it is mosque by architecture but there are people on the place who claim the stones were brought from Orthodox Church. They recall that they prayed in that building. There are architectural signs on the stones which indicate that either there was church or the stones were used for the construction of church. At this moment, I do not see any necessity to function it as a mosque because Muslims have a site for religious worship in Mokhe and they can widen that building either.

We do not want to tense relations. For that reason, we constructed separate church in Mokhe and did not use the disputed building for the church. To avoid controversy between Muslims and Orthodox communities and not to tense relations, we initiate to grant any status to the building but not assign it to any party under ownership. 

-Why could not the commission make any decision until now?

- Muslims did not agree to conduct archeological excavations because it could prove that the building was constructed on Orthodox ruins. I think, the monument shall have neutral status, and the National Agency for Preservation of Cultural Heritage shall be its owner; all religious statuses should be removed from it. We consider all possible variants about the status of this monument together with Muslims. 

-If Muslims construct a mosque in a separate place in Mokhe village, like you constructed a church in the same village, what will be the position of the Orthodox Church about it?

-Of course we are not against it. There is no problem about it. If there is objective necessity for people to pray, I cannot see any problem if they build a mosque. However, we think it is not necessary in Mokhe. And even if there is a need, we can consider idea of construction of a new mosque but not on the place of the disputable building.

-As you also mentioned, there is tense situation in Mokhe. According to Human Rights Center’s information, some Orthodox clergymen in Samtskhe-Javakheti do not support resolution of the problem. They often claim that mosques are constructed with the church stones while there are no conclusions of archeological expertise on it and they just disclose their opinions. We also heard from Orthodox people that “Georgians are not Muslim” which they have learned from their clergies. Clergymen have huge reputation in the society. What kind of role can be played by the Patriarchate to ease such a tense situation in the society?

-If one clergyman disrespects Muslim, it does not mean that whole Orthodox Church and the Patriarch of Georgia also share his opinion. Just the opposite, we recently met representatives of Muslim community and can assure you that we have very good relations. However, it does not mean that we like everything what is done. I think we must reach agreements for common peace. However, sometimes only minorities’ rights are defended and forget about the rights of majority. How it happened that there are more than 300 Muslim religious buildings in Georgia with Medresses and minarets and there are no Georgian Orthodox churches in the territory of Turkey? We have the same situation in Azerbaijan where there is only one functioning church nowadays. Everybody knows that there are Georgian religious sites in those countries. Despite that we never avoid problems and have permanent dialogues with all religious confessions who have some complaints against Orthodox Church. 

The article was prepared in the frame of the project implemented with financial support of the Government of Canada. This article does not necessarily reflect the views of the donor. Human Rights Center bears sole responsibility for the content of the article.
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