Georgia's New Ambassador to Israel Bears a Heavy Cross

Georgia's youthful new delegate to Israel aims to restore both good relations and a hold on an ancient Jerusalem monastery.

The new Georgian ambassador to Israel, Archil (Abesalom ) Kekelia, may well be the youngest member of the diplomatic corps in Israel. He is only 32 years old, but last week he submitted his bona fides to President Shimon Peres. Despite his age his country's president gave him an assignment of historic dimensions - to repossess for Georgia the Monastery of the Cross in Jerusalem, after it was lost over 300 years ago to the Greek Orthodox Church.

Kekelia's second major mission in Israel is to restore relations - especially economic ones - between the two countries, after the damage they sustained from the 2010 arrest of two Israeli businessmen, Roni Fuchs and Ze'ev Frenkel. The two were sentenced to lengthy prison terms after being convicted of bribing government officials in Georgia. Both men claimed that the conviction and imprisonment were designed to pressure them to forgive the Georgian government's debt to them.

Jerusalem’s Monastery of the Cross. Two of the most important figures in Georgian history are buried
Emil Salman

Kekelia officially received his appointment in the parliament on the same day last December the two Israelis were pardoned by the Georgian president. "I rely on our courts and the decision was fair, but there's no question that it affected the relationship," said the ambassador in an interview with Haaretz. "Now, with their release, the intention is to turn over a new leaf in the relations between the countries."

Asked about the Jerusalem monastery, Kekeliya says that it "helped us over the years to withstand outside invaders." And in fact, it is hard to exaggerate the importance of the site for the Georgian nation. According to tradition, the monastery was established by Mirian III, king of the eastern Georgian Kingdom of Iberia, as it was called, in the fourth century, on the site where tradition said the tree that was used to prepare Jesus' cross had grown. In the 11th century, the monastery was rebuilt by the Georgians in its present fortress-like format, in the Valley of the Cross, on Wednesday across the road from the Knesset building. It reached the height of its importance in the 12th century, when the Georgian national poet Shota Rustaveli lived there. It is there that Rustaveli wrote what would become the Georgian national epic, "The Knight in the Panther's Skin." A fresco in the monastery depicting the poet was vandalized in 2004, causing an Israeli-Greek-Georgian diplomatic incident.

According to the tradition, Rustaveli, who was the foreign minister of Queen Tamar, one of the most important Georgian rulers in history - was in effect forced to flee to Jerusalem, after a forbidden relationship with the queen. Legend has is that before the queen's death she ordered the preparation of 10 coffins, which were then sent all over the world, so that her actual burial place would not be known. The coffin really containing her corpse was sent to the Monastery of the Cross in Jerusalem, so that she could be united with her lover Rustaveli in her death. In that way two of the most important figures in Georgian history were buried in the monastery.

In 1695 the tragic turning point occurred for the Georgians. Due to heavy debts, the community was forced to sell the monastery to the Greek Orthodox Church. From then on the monastery was under Greek control, and today it is populated and maintained by a small number of Greek monks. But it maintained an important place in the Georgian ethos. Occasionally there is an initiative, for the most part private, to restore the monastery to Georgian hands, and almost every Georgian visitor to Israel visits the site. As far as is known, though, there have never been serious negotiations with the Greek Orthodox Church regarding the sale of the monastery.

Recently, however, the repatriation of the monastery Georgia has become a national objective. About a month ago, during a presidential visit to the country's military academy, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili declared his government's intention to work to attain control of the monastery, and he even formed a team that began working on the issue. The declaration aroused a storm in the Christian world and among the Greeks in particular. Rumors arose to the effect that Georgia and Israel were already conducting negotiations on the subject, without the knowledge of the Greeks. For the Greek Patriarchate, which controls extensive areas within Jerusalem, any talk about selling or giving up areas in the city is very sensitive. The Greek Patriarch Theophilos III was quoted in the media as being surprised at the Georgian declaration, and he denied that there were negotiations afoot for the sale of the monastery.

Now, Ambassador Kekelia is trying to calm things down. He says that the goal of the Georgian government is not necessarily to receive ownership of the monastery. "The president now brought up the issue of the monastery as part of the restoration of other historical monuments, for example, churches and monasteries in Turkey, but his statement was misinterpreted by the media. Our desire to get back the monastery is not necessarily expressed in a desire to purchase it. We aspire to receive a spiritual and cultural place in the monastery for ourselves, so that people who come here from Georgia will have a sense of belonging to the place. It's less important to us to be the owners of this site. For example, if there's a Georgian monk or priest there who will welcome them, that could be a solution."

In the short time that he's been in Israel, Kekelia and the chair of the Georgian parliament, David Bakradze - who visited Israel last week - have managed to bring up the issue with Religious Services Minister Yaakov Margi, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin and Foreign Ministry officials. This in spite of the fact that Israel has no official stand on the issue. "We found it proper to inform the Israelis about it," said Kekelia.

He also met for the purpose with Greek Patriarch Theophilos, in a meeting designed to reassure the Greeks, in light of all the rumors. "I told him that there are no secret negotiations with Israel, and that when we decide, I'm the only representative of the Georgian government who will turn to you." The ambassador also said that the patriarch did not totally reject the idea: "He didn't say 'No,' and that's important," he explained.

Last Supper is last stumbling block

The Monastery of the Cross is not the only holy place in Jerusalem over which feverish contacts are being held. Recently there have been increasing rumors in the city that the longstanding discussions between Israel and the Vatican are about to come to conclusion. A main stumbling block in the negotiations has been the Vatican's demand for a change in the Church's status in the Cenacle, the traditional hall of the Last Supper on Mount Zion.

Last week, the rabbi of the Western Wall and the holy places, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, warned against any such move. The reason is that the hall, which Catholic tradition views as the site of Jesus' Last Supper took place, and from which the first Christian apostles set out to spread the new religion, is located precisely above the place where according to Jewish tradition, King David is buried.

For Catholics, the Cenacle is Jerusalem's second-holiest site, after the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The hall is especially important to members of the Franciscan Order, as it served as its center in Jerusalem for hundreds of years, until the Franciscans were expelled from the site by the Ottomans about 500 years ago. Since 1967, when Israel took possession of East Jerusalem, Christians have been permitted to hold religious ceremonies on the site for several days a year.

"This place cannot be divided," says Rabbi Rabinowitz. "This place has to be run by Jews. I spoke about this to the foreign minister and he promised me that it won't happen."

Israel and the Vatican have been conducting negotiations for nearly a decade over a large number of issues, one of them being the hall of the Last Supper. In the past two years the negotiations have been accelerated, and most of the other issues discussed - including a tax exemption for Church institutions, entry and residence permits for Church members and upgrading the level of relations - have been resolved. But the Cenacle remains one of the last issues in dispute between the sides.

Recently a tour was conducted at the site with the participation of both sides, in the hope that agreement could be reached in advance of the next round of talks, scheduled for the Vatican in June. Those involved in the talks said that the Christian side is not requesting ownership rights over the site, but is willing to make do with an expansion of rights to use the hall. They also said that the Christian demand applies to the upper room only, and not to the entire complex, which also includes David's Tomb, so that they are not requesting a change in the sovereignty at the site. "In the end it will be solved by means of convenient terminology," was the assessment of the Foreign Ministry.