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Priceless Georgian fresco defaced in Jerusalem

JERUSALEM (AP) _ A priceless, 13th century Georgian fresco has been defaced three weeks before Georgia's president makes his first visit to Israel, an ambassador said Monday.

Georgian Ambassador Revaz Gachechiladze said the damage to the fresco was discovered Saturday when his wife was conducting a tour of the 11th century Greek Orthodox monastery in Jerusalem's Valley of the Cross.

Painted on a wall of the monastery, the fresco contains what is believed to be the sole existing portrait of the legendary Georgian poet Shota Rustaveli.

Gachechiladze said portions of the portrait had been obliterated, and several accompanying medieval Georgian letters were erased. He said the fresco had been untouched when last inspected a week earlier.

``It is impossible at the moment to say who has done this,'' he said.

President Mikhail Saakashvili is to visit Israel on July 28, Gachechiladze said. He said he hopes the fresco can be restored before then.

This is the second time a Georgian treasure has been damaged in Jerusalem. In 2002, vandals defaced a church inscription, although it was subsequently restored.

``The fresco is not holy to the Georgians, but it is a very important part of our history. I hope the police find out who did this and we can restore it before the president comes to visit,'' Gachechiladze said.

In Tbilisi, Foreign Ministry spokesman Lasha Zhvaniya said Georgia also sent a note of concern to UNESCO and to the Greek Foreign Ministry.

The head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Catholicos-Patriarch Iliya II, appealed to the international community to safeguard the artwork.
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