Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili is due to visit Israel for the first time in about two weeks, but a diplomatic storm has cast a shadow over the visit.
The storm erupted on Saturday when historian Dr. Mzia Marsagashvilli, the wife of the Geogian ambassador to Israel, accompanied a group of doctors from her country who were on a trip here. The highlight of visits to Israel for all Georgian tourists is the Greek Orthodox monastery in the Valley of the Cross in Jerusalem. On one of the walls, built by the Georgians in the 11th century, is the sole extant portrait of the famed medieval Georgian poet, Shota Rustaveli, who wrote the epic "Knight in the Panther's Skin."
As usual, Marsagashvilli took the visitors to see the ancient wall, but their excitement quickly turned to shock: The fresco was completely defaced and several of the medieval Georgian letters that formerly adorned it had been erased.
A cleaning woman, who was the only representative of the monastery present during the visit, said she had seen and heard nothing.
The monastery is hardly ever opened to visitors. All that is known is that one week before the visit, the portrait was untouched.
It did not take long for the diplomatic storm clouds to gather. The two countries' two foreign affairs ministries became involved, as did the ambassadors in each capital. The Georgian ambassador, Prof. Revaz Gachechiladze, sent an urgent letter to Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and, although Sunday was a rest day in Georgia, the foreign minister of Georgia held a news briefing in Tbilisi on the subject.
To comprehend the depth of the shock, one must understand the special significance of Rustaveli for the Georgian people. Since the 12th century, his epos - which describes in surrealistic terms the struggle between the forces of light and darkness - has held pride of place in Georgian literature. The Georgians are especially proud of his work's universal and humanistic messages.
"We are proud indeed," the ambassador says, "proud mainly of the central message that people from different backgrounds can help each other to overcome evil."
When the fresco was uncovered below layers of paint in the Jerusalem monastery in 1960, a day of national rejoicing was proclaimed in Georgia and special poems were written in its honor. Israel recognized the unique status of Rustaveli and his universal message. At the behest of the ambassador at the time, in September 2001, Israel issued a special Rustaveli stamp while Georgia printed one with an ancient synagogue.
This week's incident was not the first in which Georgian symbols - most of them in Greek Orthodox churches and monasteries - have been damaged. Two years ago, a wall inscription in the St. Nicholas church in Jerusalem's Old City was defaced.
"It was clear then that that was an inside job, but because of our good relations with the ]Greek[ patriarch, we did not make a fuss then," says the ambassador. "We did not even go to the police. We simply restored it. We thought the story was over, but apparently someone wants to stir up trouble and violence between the churches and nations and is working hard at it."
Asked whether he believes it was the work of the representatives of the Greek Orthodox Church, Gachechiladze answers diplomatically: "I don't know. There are suspicions, but no evidence. It is the Israel police's duty to investigate and to punish. We do not demand ownership of these holy places. We separate state and church ... All we ask is that the Georgian holy places be kept in appropriate fashion."
Georgia's Deputy Foreign Minister, Lasha Zhvania, told Haaretz: "Someone does not want to leave a trace of ancient Georgia's existence in the Holy Land - and these are not the Israelis. The monastery in the Valley of the Cross was the last we lost, in 1862. Since then there have been different rulers and wars, but no one dared to touch the portrait. It is only happening now. Four years ago, the Greeks sold parts of the Georgian frescoes. But only someone stupid would think that it is possible to wipe out the connection between Georgia and Jerusalem."
The Greek Orthodox patriarchate was not available for comment.
Israeli sources who have studied the wars between the churches over the holy places believe the Georgians may be interested in proving that the Greeks are not able to take overall responsibility for the various sites, and would like to make claims of their own. The Georgians are convinced that the Greeks want to erase Georgian symbols that "threaten" their hegemony over the vast and precious holy places.
"I do not expect tension between Israel and Georgia," the ambassador says. "But Israel has responsibility for the ancient heritage in its borders and it must show responsibility."
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