Confrontation with a group of local residents left several police cars damaged and four police officers lightly injured in village Kumurdo of Akhalkalaki district, a predominantly ethnic Armenian-populated area in Georgia’s Samtskhe-Javakheti region.
The incident occurred on September 30 when approximately 150 locals attempted to enter the courtyard of the Kumurdo Cathedral, a 10th century Georgian Orthodox Church situated in the center of the village. The cathedral, which has been undergoing restoration since the summer of 2016, is listed as a site of national importance, putting the cathedral under tighter protection of the country’s cultural heritage law.
According to Jnews, Akhalkalaki-based online news agency, residents of the village planned to erect a stone-cross (Khachkar in Armenian), a stone-carved stele used for religious and memorial purposes in Armenia, in the courtyard of the cathedral to mark the collective burial site of bones, which were found during the restoration-related archeological works on the site and which locals claim belong to their ancestors.
Officers of the security police, who are protecting the heritage site, formed a police cordon in the entrance of the cathedral territory to prevent the locals from entering the area, with the latter repeatedly attempting to force their way into the area. The incident escalated with the arrival of additional police forces, who started dispersing the locals using rubber batons, with local residents throwing stones in turn.
Local media sources reported that four police officers were lightly injured and hospitalized after the incident, but left the hospital the following day. Jnews said a local resident and a member of Akhalkalaki Sakrebulo were also lightly hurt, but further details, as well as the exact number of injured, could not be verified.
Two protesters were detained by the police as a result of the confrontation, but were later released and returned to the village as part of a deal reached with Interior Minister Giorgi Mgebrishvili, who visited the area shorty after the incident and held talks with the locals.
Nikoloz Antidze, Head of the National Agency for Cultural Heritage Preservation, who also travelled to the area on September 30, told reporters that the incident was “provoked.” “As far as I know, the locals wanted to erect a stone stele on the temporary [burial] site, which would hinder the archeological works and later the restoration works,” he also noted, adding that a special place would be designated right outside the cathedral fence for erecting a memorial.
Media outlets reported on October 1 that restoration works resumed and that the local Armenian parish was allowed to the cathedral to hold the Sunday prayer, followed by the liturgy of the representative of the Georgian Orthodox Church.
The Interior Ministry said it its statement on September 30 it launched investigation under Articles 3531, 187 and 239 of the Criminal Code of Georgia involving assault on police officers, property damage or destruction and hooliganism committed against authorities, respectively.
Public Defender Ucha Nanuashvili said on October 1 that his office would study the case in detail and would issue an official statement in due time.