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Row over Orthodox Church in Azerbaijan
Civil Georgia, Tbilisi / 18 Oct.'07 / 18:25

The reported closure of an Orthodox church in the Azerbaijani province of Qakh has led to a series of protest rallies outside the Azerbaijani embassy in Tbilisi.

A group of Georgian students rallied on October 18 following earlier rallies by a group of Orthodox priests and activists from an Orthodox-lobby group. Politicians from the opposition Conservative Party also participated.

Georgian media sources reported on October 15 that the local authorities in the Azerbaijani Qakh province (known as Saingilo in Georgian, and is populated by ethnic Georgians) had closed down St. George’s Orthodox church in the village of Kurmukhi.

Goka Gabashvili, Georgia’s minister for culture, said on October 17, that he had discussed the issue with his Azerbaijani counterpart. Gabashvili said that his counterpart had vowed “to intervene and sort out the problem.”

“They [the Azerbaijani side] think that the problem was caused by local bureaucrats,” Gabashvili told Rustavi 2 TV.

There are few contentious issues in Georgian-Azerbaijani relations, but all of them have the potential to cause public controversy.

In June, when Georgian Education Minister Alexander Lomaia visited the same region of Azerbaijan, local officials attempted to prevent the distribution of Georgian text-books among local pupils. The Georgian authorities downplayed the incident, saying that the central authorities had been unaware of what happened.

Another point of contention between the two states surrounds the Davit Gareji section of the border - a complex of cave monasteries – which needs to be demarcated. President Saakashvili, however, said in February that “it was not a dispute” but rather "a legal problem" inherited from Soviet times.

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