Defacement in Jerusalem Monastery Threatens Diplomatic Crisis

Georgian, Greek, and Israeli diplomats involved in rift over defaced frescos in historic Georgian monastery in Jerusalem.

The delegation of scientists from the Republic of Georgia that came to Jerusalem in June to visit the Monastery of the Cross had a strong sense of deja vu. As has happened several times over the last few decades, an unknown hand has attempted to erase the Georgian presence at the monastery, which currently belongs to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate. This time, the name of Saint Serapion in the Georgian language that appeared above the fresco depicting him was painted over, leaving only the Greek.

Two years ago, the only extant painting of Georgia's national poet, Shota Rustaveli, the author of the national epic, "The Knight in the Panther's Skin," was defaced in the same monastery. The Georgians viewed the act, which occurred shortly before the visit to Israel by President Mikhail Saakashvili, as a deliberate provocation. The defacement drew a sharp diplomatic response. After much effort, the Greek Patriarchate denounced the "act of vandalism." Israel saw to the painting's restoration but did not keep its promise to Georgia that experts from that country would be permitted to participate in the restoration. The Israel Police investigation of the incident ended without result.

The more recent defacement has also turned into a international diplomatic incident involving Israel, Georgia and Greece. The Georgian scientists once again appealed to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Jerusalem in an effort to find a solution. After months of inaction, the affair has recently received wide coverage in the Georgian media.

Israel's Ambassador to Tibilisi, Shabtai Tzur, was even summoned to Georgia's Foreign Ministry to receive an official letter of protest expressing Georgia's concern for the preservation of its history in Israel. Georgia has also requested that Israel investigate the incident and repair the damage to the wall text with the aid of Georgian experts.

The monastery in the Valley of the Cross belonged to the Georgian Church until the 19th century, when the church essentially went bankrupt and was forced to sell all of its assets in the region to Greeks. Israeli experts believe the Greek Church, and perhaps the Israeli government as well, fear that Georgia could demand the return of its properties in the country. In light of the fact that many plots in strategic locations in Jerusalem and other cities are leased by Israel from the Greeks (including the land on which the Knesset stands), Israel behaves with great caution in its dealings with the Greek Church.

"After the defacement of Rustaveli's portrait the Georgian people expected Israel to protect Georgian history in Jerusalem and the rest of Israel," Georgia's ambassador to Israel, Lasha Zhvania, said in response to the June incident. "Unfortunately no real investigation of that incident was carried out and no one was punished for it. We suspended our appeal to UNESCO two years ago, on the assumption that Israel was protecting Georgian culture. And now, in 2006, the story repeats itself. This time the Greek Patriarchate has not even denounced the incident."

Archbishop Aristarchos of Constantine, secretary-general of the Greek Orthodox Synod of Jerusalem, stated that the Patriarchate rejects the claim that the vandalism was a recent event or that it was intentional. He said the Patriarchate in Jerusalem seeks to deal with the incident and reach conciliation among all the parties involved.

The entire affair is further complicated by the fact that the Greek Orthodox Church is in effect ruled by two patriarchs: Irineos, who is recognized by Israel only, and Theophilus, who is recognized by the Greek Orthodox world.

The vandalism incidents are not the only ones surrounding the Monastery of the Cross. Two years ago the main road leading to the monastery was dedicated in Rustaveli's name. Since then the street sign has been stolen three times. Zhvania recently learned that the Jerusalem municipality received a letter from a group calling itself the Israel-Georgia Friendship Association asking that a different street in Jerusalem be named after Rustaveli instead, ostensibly to avoid the recurring thefts. The ambassador said it is important to the Georgian people and the local community that the street name remain as it is. He called the letter a major provocation "that harms relations between Israel and Georgia."

The Georgian president is scheduled to visit Israel later this month, but no connection has been drawn between the visit and the latest incident.