Artsakh officials fight cultural erasure

On February 3, Minister of Culture of Azerbaijan Anar Karimov told local media that they intended to establish a working group of specialists who “know the history, culture and writing of Caucasian Albania.” The group would remove the physical traces of Armenian heritage from religious sites in Artsakh/Nagorno Karabakh and thus implement the history falsification policy of the Azerbaijani authorities, which concocts an “Albanian” origin of Armenian churches.

Earlier this year, during a visit to the Hadrut region of Artsakh, currently under Azerbaijani control, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev stated at Surb Astvatsatsin Church in the village of Tsakuri (Tsaghkavank), “Armenians have desecrated our mosques as well as the old Albanian temples. But we will restore them. All of these Armenian inscriptions are fake and were added later.”

Commenting on the manifestations of Azerbaijani vandalism, National Assembly of the Artsakh Republic member and Doctor of Historical Sciences Vahram Balayan noted, “Azerbaijan’s ambitions of conquest towards the Armenian territories are not new. Back in the early 20th century, when Musavat Azerbaijan was founded, these ambitions not only grew but also became systemic and continued during the Soviet period.”

In the 1970s, another state program of Albanization of Armenian cultural heritage was launched in Azerbaijan, when an attempt was made to present the historical and cultural monuments of the Nagorno Karabakh Oblast and adjacent Armenian territories as Albanian. 

“It should be noted that not only Armenian but also several foreign scholars addressed this issue. Back in ancient times, Greek and Roman historians stated in their works that the right  bank of the Kura River was Armenian and therefore Azerbaijan’s claims about the elimination of Albanian traces by Armenians have little to do with the objective reality.

The preserved source materials also contain the genealogy of the descendants of the Armenian monastic patriarchs for centuries. All these actions of the Azerbaijani authorities aim to appropriate the Armenian historical and cultural heritage, and it is our obligation to fight against it with all our might,” Balayan said. 

According to official data, after the war of 2020, at least 1,456 significant Armenian monuments went under Azerbaijani occupation, including 161 monasteries and churches; 591 khachkars; 345 tombstones, tombs and cemeteries; 208 sanctuaries; and 10 state and 2 private museums.

Adviser to the President of the Artsakh Republic Lusine Gharakhanyan, who held the post of Minister of Education, Science, Culture and Sports during and after the war, noted, ”Azerbaijan is fighting against the historical and cultural heritage of Artsakh at the highest state level, destroying Christian monuments of Armenian origin on the one hand, and misappropriating them.

They attribute them to the Caucasian Albanian culture, and thus to the Azerbaijani one. In other words, as Hamlet Petrosyan [an Armenian historian, archaeologist and anthropologist] says, this is mediated embezzlement. The implementation of such a policy at the state level is a cultural genocide, a far-reaching expansion, ignoring all international laws that stipulate the preservation of the universal historical and cultural heritage.

We have called on the relevant international organizations to take practical steps in order to prevent the cultural genocide, perpetrated at the level of the President of Azerbaijan, with renewed vigor in the occupied part of our homeland. Nevertheless, it is a fact is that today the Holy Saviour Ghazanchetsots Cathedral in Shushi is vandalized and defaced.”

A few days after the November 9 trilateral ceasefire statement, the Kanach Zham Church in Shushi was found in a state of disrepair, particularly its dome and bell tower. According to the Fact Investigation Platform (FIP) the source of this information is a publication by an Azerbaijani Facebook user named Sevinc Asadullayeva. 

Since the ceasefire was established, the Holy Mother of God Church in Mekhakavan and the khachkar in the village of Arakel in Hadrut have been completely destroyed. “This is an ethnocide, a dangerous process. We can say that the war is going on, since to eradicate culture means to completely eradicate all the attributes of identity, national self-consciousness, values, because we have emotional, behavioral and connection with all these monuments,” added Gharakhanyan.

It should be noted that on December 7, the UN International Court of Justice obliged Azerbaijan to “take all the necessary measures to prevent the incitement and promotion of racial hatred and discrimination against ethnic Armenians, including by Azerbaijani officials and state institutions” and to “prevent and punish acts of vandalism and desecration against Armenian cultural heritage, including churches and other places of worship, monuments, landmarks, cemeteries and artifacts.”

Nevertheless, Gharakhanyan does not have much faith in the relevant international structures. “As an academic and as a state official, I am deeply disappointed with the fact that UNESCO voted for Azerbaijan in the midst of the war. This creates an atmosphere of distrust in the organization, which has a mission to preserve the universal cultural heritage,” she said.

Artsakh Human Rights Defender Gegham Stepanyan is not optimistic either. Over the past year, Armenian authorities have used various tools to counter Azerbaijani actions. Reports and letters have been sent to international organizations.

Public statements have regularly been made on the issue. A few months after the end of the war, the staff of the Human Rights Defender of the Artsakh Republic published a report on the cases of vandalism of Armenian cultural heritage in Artsakh by Azerbaijan.

As Stepanyan said, “The purpose of our report was to alarm the international community about the threat to Armenian cultural heritage in the territories occupied by Azerbaijan. Unfortunately, the international community has not taken any clear steps so far, and this is one of the main reasons why the Azerbaijani side freely continues its policy of desecrating our monuments and distorting their history.

The statement of the Minister of Culture of Azerbaijan that a working group is being formed in Azerbaijan to remove the Armenian inscriptions from the churches shows that Azerbaijan, with its cynical behavior, dares to oppose the decision of the International Court of Justice.

The Court will be informed about such a step by Azerbaijan, and we will demand from the Court to use all its tools to implement its own decision. At the same time, we will continue to work on monitoring the situation of cultural monuments and will consistently alert about all the ongoing crimes.”

President of the European Armenian Federation for Justice and Democracy Kaspar Karampetian, who for years raised the issues of protection of the rights of the people of Artsakh with the representatives of various European structures, also commented: “The preservation of the Armenian cultural heritage in Artsakh, in particular after the war in 2020 has constantly been in the focus of our attention.

During all our recent meetings with dozens of decision-makers in Brussels, both on the EU level and on the national level, we have been emphasizing the Azerbaijani policy of erasure of the Armenian cultural heritage in the occupied territories of Artsakh as well as the necessity to actively fight against it. We intend to undertake concrete steps in this direction in the near future and also mobilize our committees across Europe.

The EU and relevant international organizations have the moral obligation to put effective pressure on the authoritarian regime of Azerbaijan to immediately end its destructive policies, including cultural genocide and history falsification.”

By Siranuysh Sargsyan

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