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Azerbaijani Government Evicted Georgian Priest Serving In Saingilo

19.11.2007
Georgian Orthodox parishioners in Saingilo (a region in Azerbaijan close to the Georgian border mostly inhabited by Georgians) have not been allowed to enter St. George’s Church of Kurmukhi for eight months. The door of St. George’s was nailed shut under the order of Kakhi region authorities in Azerbaijan. According to the locals, they key to the church was even taken from the Georgian priest. The international press this incident received press has been followed up by the Azerbaijani government expelling Father Gabriel Jambazishvili from the country and placing the Orthodox Ingilos under police control.

According to the ethnic Georgians living in Saingilo, local Azeris used the church as a cattle shed until 2005. Two years ago, with the help of the Georgian Patriarch, Orthodox Hers living in the Kakhi region of Azerbaijan gained the ability to pray in St. George’s Church of Kurnukhi.

“Every Sunday we would attend religious services in the church,” said Emzar Sukashvili, a member of the Lazare Georgian folk music group. “By the end of September, the church was locked. According to the Kakhi region authorities, under the legislation of Azerbaijan the church was not officially registered as a place of worship. The church is still locked and despite our demands to open it, we have not received any further information from public officials.” Lazare is the only operational Georgian folk music group in Saingilo.

Ingilos do not hide their fear of talking with journalists. The Hers state that each word may cause them more problems. “When Georgian journalists responded to the closing of the Orthodox Church in Saingilo, Kakhi police were mobilized here for three weeks,” reported an Ingilo who preferred to stay anonymous. “It was not easily observed at first, but we knew that we were under police control. Many of us were visited by unexpected guests who tried to find out the topic of conversation between Georgian journalists and us. Lately, representatives of the Kakhi government summoned Father Gabriel and told him to leave Azerbaijan within a few days. We suppose that his active role in this situation. If he had not left Azerbaijan willingly, he would have been expelled from the country.”

Representatives of the Nekresi and Hereti Church Eparchy confirm that Fatehr Gabriel Jabazishvili no longer serves in Saingilo. Georgian Patriarch Ilia II sanctified Priest Joanne Abasashvili to serve in the Kakhi region of Azerbaijan.

Hers living in the Kakhi region suppose that the local government will not allow the new priest to serve in Saingilo or seriously restrict his activities as well. “They did not have any personal complaints about Father Gabriel,” declares Milia Skanelashvili, “they just did not like his activities. It is worth mentioning that we are doing our best to preserve our Georgian nationality, faith and traditions, but that the Azerbaijani government tries to hamper us. We doubt that local authorities would dare to lock the church without the permission of the Azerbaijani government. The Azerbaijani government does its best to be different from Azerbaijani people, whom we respect and have kind attitude towards them.”

Iagudiv Aliev, head of the press office of the State Committee of Azerbaijan working on religious formations, when talking with the Azerbaijani press gave the following explanation regarding the closure of St. George’s Church in Kurmukhi: “It is an old Albanian Orthodox Church and it is not right to declare it a Georgian Church of St. George. Georgians living in Saingilo have to accept that idea.”

The Georgian Public Defender is interested in the sentiment expressed by Mr. Aliev. Sozar Subari appealed to Elmira Suleimanova, the attorney of Azerbaijani Republic on issues relating to the protection of human rights, asking that she take this case under her control and act on the situation.

“If the facts of this case are shown to be true, it is a restriction of belief,” the Georgian public defender stated.  “I appeal to you not only because the right of belief is guaranteed under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, but also because I consider the long-term friendship between our nations and the mutual understanding of our institutions. Thus, I request that you find the truth and take this case under your personal control and take any and all appropriate measures.” When contacted, the staff of the Public Defender’s Office made no comment on the situation.

The NGO coalition of Kakheti supposes that the situation with St. George’s Church may cause misunderstandings and disputes between Georgians and Azerbaijanis living in the Kakheti region. On November 23rd, Georgians celebrate St. George’s day. Traditionally, scores of people travel from Kakheti to Hereti for service in Kurmukhi St. George’s Church. Georgians argue that Azerbaijanis have absolute freedom of their faith in Georgia and demand the same for Hers living in Saingilo.  “If they do not open the St. George’s Church by the day of St. George we will lock the mosque in Kakheti,” state residents of Lagodekhi, where there are several villages populated by Azerbaijanis. “We would not do this because of the traditionally friendly relations between our countries. The Azerbaijani government is abusing this fact. We advise the Georgian government to be more active in terms of problem-solving. We are not willing to have religious conflicts in Georgia.”

                                                   Gela Mtivlishvili, Kakheti

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