Georgi Elibekov, an Armenian member of the Georgian Dream political alliance has recently charged Bishop Vazgen Mirzakhanyan, Primate of the Armenian Apostolic Church Diocese of Georgia of mismanaging some US $940,000 allocated to the diocese by the Bidzina Ivanishvili Foundation.
Ivanishvili is a Georgian businessman and politician who was Prime Minister of Georgia from 25 October 2012 to 20 November 2013.
In a conversation I had with Bishop Mirzakhanyan, the clergyman refuted all the charges, claiming they were the result of a conspiracy to defame both the Armenian Apostolic Church and himself.
After Elibekov went public with the charges, a quarrel broke out between certain leaders of the Georgia-Armenian community and Elibekov, reaching the level of stone throwing.
Mirzakhanyan said that the people involved included political figures, including local Armenians, who wanted to sidetrack the national and religious work being carried out by the diocese.
“They are Armenians who have ties with certain Georgian circles. All this has been uncovered. They know it has been uncovered,” Bishop Mirzakhanyan told me.
The clergyman said that Ivanishvili had indeed donated 100,000 Georgian Lari (US$ 57,900) for the renovation of the Saint Gevorg Armenian Church in Tbilisi and thanks the money went directly to the church restoration fund.
When I asked Bishop Mirzakhanyan to comment on rumors that the Georgian side had petitioned the Mother See of Etchmiadzin to relieve him of his post as primate, he said nothing of the kind had happened.
“No one petitioned Etchmiadzin. The Supreme Catholicos values what we are doing here and there is nothing on the table about removing me,” he said.
Bishop Mirzakhanyan enumerated some of the achievement made during his eleven year tenure as primate, noting that the number of working churches has increased from 10-15 to 47 today. He added that the number of clergyman has also increased from seven to sixteen.
In the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, the primate said that the two Armenian churches (St. Etchmiadzin and St. Gevorg) were in need of major repair. The first has been totally renovated and the work is underway on the second.
The most important addition, according to the primate, has been the construction of the “Hayartoun” which now serves as a community hall for the community.
Bishop Mirzakhanyan was quick to point out the problematic nature of maintaining the rich Armenian cultural legacy in Georgia and said that despites the hurdles serving was mission that brings his happiness.
“This is not Europe, the United States or Russia. The environment here is socially difficult and fraught with a number of clergy-related complexities,” Bishop Mirzakhanyan noted, adding that it was thus important for Armenian news outlets to be careful when covering community events and individuals.
“If they plan to write something, the outlets should first know who their sources are and whether they are credible or not. This is a matter of journalistic skill and wisdom,” said the primate.
Bishop Mirzakhanyan then raised the matter of Armenian national security, when he noted that despite the large number of Armenians living in Georgia, they have no real representation other than the church and cultural framework.
“Our neighbors the Azerbaijanis are not only represented by their clergy but also by the powerful State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR), banks and other institutions. We are represented through the church and if anyone shakes its foundations they are directly threatened our national security,” argued the primate. “Yes, we have the Armenian Embassy, a political institution that settles inter-governmental issues, but there is also the church that works with the community.”
He confessed that the Armenian community in Georgia is still lacking when it comes to being actively involved in communal affairs despite the church’s best efforts.
Bishop Mirzakhanyan likened the problem to the community’s fixation with past glory at the expense of the present.
“Just like the Greeks who bask in the glory of the Acropolis and have difficulties building their present, so too do Armenians, especially those in Tbilisi, like to remember the grandeur of the past and aren’t able to shape their present,” the primate said.
He then compared the Armenian community in Georgia to those in Beirut, Syria, the U.S. and Russia, noting that communities in the latter camp unite to raise funds to solve their issues, while Armenians in Georgia are content to let the state government assume the burden.
“The government in Georgia finances the schools, the theater and the press. This has made Armenians somewhat lazy. This is why our community organizations ask what is left for them to do if the church is functioning. But there is so much still to do,” he said.
I then asked the primate about a recent Georgian government decision to compensate the four recognized churches in the country for losses sustained during the Soviet era.
Bishop Mirzakhanyan said an amount had been paid not from the budget but from a state reserve fund. He confessed that while certain representatives of society opposed the decision, the Georgian Orthodox Patriarchate welcomed it.
When I asked how the government came up with an appraisal of the losses sustained by the Armenian Apostolic Church, the primate said even the Georgian government was unable to agree on an amount and thus declared that the amount provided should be regarded as partial compensation.
As to how much the Armenian Apostolic Church would receive in compensation. Bishop Mirzakhanyan would only say that the total package for the four churches amounted to around 4.5 million Georgian Lari (US $2.6 million).
“While a final distribution scheme has yet to be announced, we have an estimate. However, let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” said the cautious primate.
As to the most pressing issue facing the Georgian-Armenian community, Bishop Mirzakhanyan singled out the need for more clergy.
“We must ensure that every church parish has a pastor so that people can live a Christian life. When we visit a rural parish, people know that they should bring a child for baptism or a couple to be married. But before and after these ceremonies, they don’t know how to lead Christian lives. We see the difference in communities where there is a church and a parish priest. People there have hope towards the future.”