|Affiliation||historically Armenian Apostolic Church; claimed by the Georgian Orthodox Church in 1995|
|Location||41 Kote Abkhazi (Leselidze) Street, Tbilisi, Georgia|
Norashen (Armenian: Նորաշեն, "newly built"; Georgian: ნორაშენი, Norasheni) is a non-functioning Armenian Apostolic church in Tbilisi, Georgia. It is located in the old town, near Sioni Cathedral and Jvaris Mama Church.
The church has historically been known as the Church of the Holy Mother of God (Սուրբ Աստվածածին, Surb Astvatsatsin). Built in early 16th century, the church belonged to the Armenian Apostolic Church until it was shut down and confiscated by the Soviet authorities in the 1930s, later serving as a library. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the church was consecrated by Georgian Orthodox clergy as an Orthodox church in 1995, while Armenian traces were removed from in and around the church. Armenian protests eventually led to it being closed indefinitely.
More controversy around the church arose in 2008 when a Georgian priest built a fence around the church and attempted to remove some of the Armenian gravestones. It is one of the several defunct Armenian churches in Tbilisi that the Armenian Church has unsuccessfully sought to return to use in the post-Soviet period.
The church was built in 1507 by a wealthy Armenian noble named Satat (Սատաթ), who probably held the title of a paron (baron). He devoted it to the memory of his grandfather, father, his wife, their three sons and himself. The church was renovated in 1650, through funding by Khoja Nazar of New Julfa who erected a khachkar, embedded into the interior wall a year earlier, in 1649. The church's frescoes were created by Hovnatan Hovnatanian of the prominent Hovnatanian family in 1793. The church was greatly damaged in 1795 during the Persian invasion of Tbilisi by Agha Mohammad Khan Qajar. Melik Avetik, of the Behbudian (Bebutashvili) family, ordered a complete renovation of the church in 1795 that likely lasted until 1808.
The church underwent several more renovations through the 19th century, in 1830–1835, 1857, and 1897, and 1899. A boys' and girls' schools were established at the church in 1858 and 1866, respectively. Like many other places of worship, Norashen was one of the Armenian churches in Tbilisi shut down by the Soviet authorities on December 22, 1933. As of 1972 the church housed a scientific library of the Georgian SSR Academy of Sciences. According to Samvel Karapetyan, some changes were made to the church in 1983 when the area was undergoing renovation. Employees of the Division of Monuments Preservation, under the supervision of Shota Kavlashvili, Tbilisi's chief architect, reportedly removed the church's northern portal as a "redundancy" and some Armenian tombstones disappeared.
The church was historically an Armenian Apostolic church; it was mentioned as an Armenian Church by French traveler Jean Chardin in 1673 and by Georgian scholar Egnati Ioseliani in 1837. However, since the last years of Soviet rule, some Georgian scholars, officials, and, most notably, the Georgian Orthodox Church have disputed the ownership of the church. As early as 1989 Jansouk Babounashvili, Deputy Director of the Department of Monuments Preservation of Georgia, declared Norashen to be a Georgian Orthodox church built in the 13th century. Bondo Arveladze, a Georgian historian, claimed Norashen was "illegally built by Armenians on the ruins of an Orthodox church" since there are no documents in the archives "authorizing its construction issued by the tsar or the patriarch of that time.” On the other hand, Sozar Subari, Georgia's Ombudsman, noted in 2006 that it is common knowledge that Norashen is an Armenian church and Armenian claims for return are rightful.
In their 2005 report on the state of religious freedom in Georgia, the U.S. Department of State noted that "many problems among traditional religious groups stem from property disputes" and that the "prominent Armenian church in Tbilisi, Norashen, remains closed." According to a 2011 news report by RFE/RL Norashen is the "biggest source of Georgian-Armenian tensions." According to Blauvelt and Berglund the Georgian government does not return Norashen to the Armenian Church because "officials did not dare to challenge" the Georgian Orthodox Church. As of 2008, it was owned by the Ministry of Economy, while the Ministry of Culture was responsible for maintenance. As of 2016 the church had a status of cultural heritage. Beka Mindiashvili, a Georgian theologian, has criticized the indecision on the part of the authorities as a relic of the Soviet legacy.
In November 1994 books began to be taken out of the church. Teodoros Jokhadze, secretary of Patriarch Ilia II of Georgia, declared that the existence of an Armenian church in the proximity of the Tbilisi Sioni Cathedral was not acceptable and that it should me "made Georgian." On February 15, 1995 Georgian Orthodox clergy consecrated the church according to Georgian church rituals and declared its new name: Khareba ("Annunciation" or "Our Lady of Good News"; Georgian: ყოვლადწმიდა ღვთისმშობლის ხარების სახელობის ეკლესია, k’ovladtsmida ghvtismshoblis kharebis sakhelobis ek’lesia). Archbishop Torkom Manoogian, locum tenens of the Armenian Catholicos, expressed his concerns with the move in a letter to Georgia's President Eduard Shevardnadze and Patriarch Ilia II. A month later, in March 1995, Armenian Church figures visited Tbilisi upon invitation of the local Armenian community, who protested the move. The delegation met with Patriarch Ilia II and the parties agreed to close the church for an indefinite period and create a committee to study the ownership of disputed churches.
In 1994–95, several alterations were made to the church. Armenian sources accuse the Georgian Church and Georgian authorities in erasing the church's Armenian traces and elements. For instance, the bema (elevated platform) was reportedly lowered, khachkars embedded into the walls were removed, Armenian inscriptions and frescoes were erased. Samvel Karapetyan of the Research on Armenian Architecture (RAA) argued that the Georgian authorities have systematically removed Armenian characteristics from the church. According to Karapetyan the baptistery located near the internal northern wall was destroyed, while the old doors were replaced with new ones featuring a Georgian-style cross. A tombstone located near the northern entrance of the church was paved with asphalt.
2005 and 2008 controversies
In the spring of 2005 Father Tariel Sikinchelashvili, the priest of the neighboring Jvaris Mama Orthodox Church, moved Georgian tombstones into the yard of Norashen. They were placed near the southern wall of the church. Meanwhile, the tombstones that contained Armenian inscriptions were vandalized. According to Samvel Karapetyan's research, at least one gravestone of an individual who died in 1874 was brought by Father Tariel from Dusheti, where he had been a priest before moving to Tbilisi. Karapetyan noted that the priest, thus, sought to "Georganize" the church. Father Tariel declared during the controversy: "The land is ours, the church is ours and we do whatever we want and what we are told to do."
In mid-May 2008 Father Tariel ordered a concrete-metal fence and gates to be built around Norashen. The fence is decorated with symbols characteristic to the Georgian Church. Father Tariel also claimed at the time that Georgian liturgy "will start no later than in a month after all interior repairs inside the building itself finish." The Armenian Church diocese in Georgia protested the move. The municipality of Tbilisi made a decision to remove the fencing, however, it was not carried out.
On November 16, 2008 Father Tariel attempted to remove the gravestones of Mikayel and Lidia Tamamshyans (Tamashev) with the help of a bulldozer. Protests by the Armenian community were successful in returning the gravestones to their original sites. The incident was widely covered in Armenia. The Armenian Church criticized the Georgian priest and called on Georgian authorities to return the church. Vardan Astsatryan, the head of the Armenian government's department on national minorities and religion, called it an act of vandalism. A protest was held in front of Georgia's embassy in Yerevan. Armenian parliament speaker Hovik Abrahamyan expressed his concerns with the issue to Georgia's ambassador to Armenia.
On December 8, 2008 Armenia's Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan, government ministers, Armenian clergy prayed inside the church in what became the first Armenian prayer in Norashen since the 1930s.
In 2014 the Georgian National Agency for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage made a decision to restore the church. It was funded by the Foundation for the Preservation of Georgian Historical Monuments. In total, some 504,000 lari was spent on its renovation. The restoration works were carried out in 2015-16 and were aimed at strengthening its walls and dome. Furthermore, the old doors and windows were replaced with new ones and the original Armenian gravestones were returned.
- "Թբիլիսիի Նորաշեն Սուրբ Աստվածածին Եկեղեցի [Norashen Holy Mother of God Church of Tbilisi]". armenianchurch.ge (in Armenian). Diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Holy Church in Georgia. Archived from the original on 28 April 2019.
- "An Historical Overview of the Norashen Sourb Astvatzatzin Church". Hetq. 8 December 2008. Archived from the original on 29 April 2019.; Armenian version by Kristine Aghalaryan (archived PDF)
- Hasratyan, Murad (2009). "Թբիլիսիի հայկական եկեղեցիների ճարտարապետությունը [Architecture of the Armenian Churches in Tbilisi]". Etchmiadzin (in Armenian). 65 (6): 74.
- Mouradian 2008, p. 96.
- Mouradian 2008, pp. 96–97.
- Karapetyan, Samvel (1998), The State Policy of Georgia and the Monuments of Armenian Culture (1988-1998) (in Armenian) (1st ed.), Yerevan: Research on Armenian Architecture, pp. vi–vii, ISBN 5-8080-0144-7
- Mouradian 2008, p. 95.
- "ნორაშენი [Norasheni]" (in Georgian). National Parliamentary Library of Georgia. Archived from the original on 29 April 2019.
- "2009 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Georgia". Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. March 11, 2010. Archived from the original on 25 July 2019.
Controversy continued to surround the disposition of the Norashen Church, claimed by both the Armenian Apostolic and Georgian Orthodox churches.
- "საქართველოს საპატრიარქო სადავო ეკლესიების საკითხს ეხმაურება [The Patriarchate of Georgia responds to the issue of disputed churches]". patriarchate.ge (in Georgian). Georgian Orthodox Church. 8 December 2008. Archived from the original on 29 April 2019.
- Mamiashvili, Fati; Khojoyan, Sara (22 December 2008). "Tbilisi Witnesses Unholy Row". Archived from the original on 29 April 2019.
- Khachatryan, Anzhela (24 April 2006). "Հայկական եկեղեցիների ճակատագիրն անորոշ է". Hetq (in Armenian).
- "International Religious Freedom Report 2005: Georgia". state.gov. United States Department of State Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.
- Simonian, Karine (10 June 2011). "Armenian Church Head Begins Landmark Visit To Georgia". RFE/RL.
- Blauvelt, Timothy K.; Berglund, Christofer (2016). "Armenians in the Making of Modern Georgia". In Siekierski, Konrad; Troebst, Stefan (eds.). Armenians in Post-Socialist Europe. Böhlau Verlag Köln Weimar. p. 80. ISBN 9783412501556.
Several Armenian churches, which had been appropriated by the state under Soviet rule, had still not been returned to the community, since officials did not dare to challenge the GOC, which claimed them as Georgian churches. Five of these disputed sites were situated in Tbilisi, including the old town's Norashen Church, located on the former Armenian Bazaar Street, and many of these properties were falling into despair.
- Gogolashvili, Natia (10 February 2016). "Tbilisi Based Disputed Armenian Churches Are On the Edge of Collapse". humanrights.ge. Archived from the original on 19 October 2017.
- Rekhviashvili, Jimsher (8 June 2018). "დაუსრულებელი საბჭოთა წარსული [Unending Soviet legacy]". RFE/RL.
- Ghazinyan, Aris (23 May 2008). "Crisis of Faith: Armenian identity threatened in Tbilisi". ArmeniaNow. Archived from the original on 28 April 2019.
- "Tension Reported With Georgia Over Church in Tbilisi". Daily Report: Central Eurasia. Foreign Broadcast Information Service (via Noyan Tapan) (40–48): 68. 1 March 1995.
- ""ისტორიული ვიზიტი" შედეგის გარეშე ["Historic visit" without results]" (in Georgian). Voice of America Georgian Service. 15 June 2011.
- Stamboltsyan, Gevorg (18 November 2008). "Հերթական ոտնձգությունը Թբիլիսիի Սուրբ Նորաշեն եկեղեցու դեմ". azatutyun.am (in Armenian). RFE/RL.
- Editorial (2008). "Նոր ոտնձգություններ Թբիլիսիի Սուրբ Նորաշեն հայկական եկեղեցու դեմ [New encroachment on St. Norashen Armenian Church of Tbilisi]". Etchmiadzin (in Armenian). 64 (10): 138–139.
- "Վերջերս Թբիլիսիի սուրբ Նորաշեն եկեղեցու բակում կատարված ապօրինությունների կապակցությամբ ԱԺ նախագահն իր մտահոգությունն է հայտնել Վրաստանի դեսպանին" (in Armenian). Armenpress. 20 November 2008.
- "73 տարվա ընդմիջումից հետո երեկ Ս. Նորաշենում հայերը մոմեր վառեցին". Hetq (in Armenian). 9 December 2008. Archived from the original on 29 April 2019.
- Aghalaryan, Kristine (1 December 2008). "Թիֆլիսահայերը չեն կարողանում մոմ վառել հայկական եկեղեցում". Hetq (in Armenian). Archived from the original on 29 April 2019.
- Aghalaryan, Kristine (14 September 2015). "Թբիլիսիի սուրբ Նորաշենը ջրի մեջ է. ի՞նչ է դառնալու եկեղեցին ամրացումից հետո". Hetq (in Armenian).
- Mouradian, Parouyr (2008). "Թիֆլիսի հայոց Նորաշեն եկեղեցու իրական պատմությունը [The real story of Norashen Armenian Church of Tbilisi]". Etchmiadzin (in Armenian). 64 (5): 92–97.
- Shakaryan, Rev. Fr. Sahak (2010). "Փաստաթղթեր Թիֆլիսի Նորաշենի Ս. Աստվածածին Եկեղեցու մասին [Documents on St. Astvatsatseen Church of Norashen in Tbilisi]". Etchmiadzin (in Armenian). 66 (7): 70–84.
- A Flickr photo set of Norashen (summer 2008)