In its 2021 Report on International Religious Freedoms issued on Thursday, the U.S. State Department echoed concerns legislated by a European body about the threat facing Armenian churches, monasteries, and other cultural landmarks that have fallen under Azerbaijani occupation since the end of military actions in the 2020 war.
In its report on Azerbaijan, the State Department cites a resolution adopted by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) relating to the humanitarian consequences of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict, where PACE expressed its concerns about the future of the many Armenian churches, monasteries, including the Dadivank monastery, cross-stones and other forms of cultural heritage that came under the control of Azerbaijan.
The State Department report says that the Azerbaijani government has repeatedly denied access to the Armenian pilgrims to the Dadivank monastery. Azerbaijanis continued to be unable to visit many mosques and religious sites due to mine contamination from the fighting, it added.
The State Department report also cited the PACE resolution which expressed “concern about a developing narrative in Azerbaijan promoting a ‘Caucasian Albanian’ heritage to replace what is seen as an ‘Armenian’ cultural heritage.”
“There were numerous reports during the year of vandalism and destruction of Armenian cultural and religious sites, as well as deliberate actions by the government to sever and distort the connection of religious sites to their Armenian heritage”, the State Department said in the report.
On September 27, PACE adopted a resolution condemning the damage “deliberately caused to cultural heritage during the 6-week war, and what appeared to be the deliberate shelling of the [Holy Savior Cathedral] in Shusha and the destruction or damage of other churches and cemeteries during and after the conflict.”
“Government actions and rhetoric stating churches were “Caucasian Albanian” prompted international observers, Armenian officials, civil society representatives, and the Armenian Apostolic Church to express grave concerns about the preservation of Armenian ties to historical and religious sites now under Azerbaijani control,” said the State Department.
Below are excerpts from the report
On May 4, the [Azerbaijan’s] Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated the Azerbaijani-funded reconstruction of the Holy Savior Cathedral in Shusha was “by the original architectural style to restore the historical image of Shusha” and attributed renovations of the site to reflect “Caucasian Albanian” heritage.
Armenian officials said such statements attempted to conceal the church’s Armenian roots and structure, including the original spire. In a letter to UNESCO, Armenia’s acting Minister of Education, Science, Culture and Sports Vahram Dumanyan accused Azerbaijan of actively implementing “a policy of falsification of historical facts” by calling the sites of Armenian cultural heritage in the newly returned territory “Caucasian-Albanian.” On September 27, Caucasus Heritage Watch (CHW) reported the Azerbaijani government embarked on an extensive campaign after the November 2020 ceasefire to claim Armenian heritage sites either do not exist or have “Caucasian Albanian” origins.
Following the November 2020 ceasefire, leaders of the Armenian Apostolic Church requested that Russian peacekeepers protect the medieval Dadivank Monastery in the district of Kelbajar. The government initially allowed Armenian pilgrims to visit the church, but access became increasingly difficult throughout the year.
According to media reports and Armenian Apostolic Church authorities, two groups of pilgrims were denied access to the monastery in February and April; Forum 18 reported in July that no Armenian pilgrims had been able to visit the monastery since May 2.
Azerbaijani authorities cited COVID-19, flooding, and road damage as reasons for denying access to groups of pilgrims who were ready with Russian peacekeeper escorts to visit the monastery, according to the Armenian Apostolic Church. By year’s end, in addition to the monastery, no Armenian pilgrims had been permitted visits to any religious site in Azerbaijani-controlled territory (where no Russian peacekeepers were present) since May 2.
CHW’s June and September reports identified other religious and historical sites under the government’s control that were destroyed, damaged, or under the threat of destruction due to proximate construction. CHW reported the destruction of Mets Tagher Cemetery, an inscribed stone of Holy Savior Cathedral, and the Sghnakh Cemetery.
CHW said it was concerned about the government’s reconstruction of the St. John the Baptist Church (also known as Kanach Zham/Green Church) located in Shusha. Footage after the November 2020 ceasefire showed partial destruction of the dome and bell tower of the church. According to a CHW analysis, the church previously had two cupolas; the analysis cited a February image taken from Google Earth showing a portion of the eastern cupola was still standing at that time. CHW said that based on satellite imagery from April 10, the eastern cupola had been destroyed.
On May 26, BBC reported the removal of a cross atop St. Yeghishe Armenian Church in Sugovushan (Mataghis). A video reposted in March by Armenia’s ombudsman Armen Tatoyan on social media had shown soldiers wearing Azerbaijani and Turkish insignia desecrating the church.
In June, The Art Newspaper published a report using satellite images that detailed the destruction of medieval Armenian churches in Agulis, Nakhchivan. The churches were seen in 1977 images but were missing in images from 2016 and 2019.
The destruction included Surb Stepanos (Saint Stephen), likely founded in the 12th to 13th centuries, the medieval Surb Tovma (Saint Thomas), Surb Kristapor (Saint Christopher), Surb Hovhannes Mkrtich (Saint John the Baptist), and other ancient churches, such as Mets Anapat Surb Astvatasatsin (Greater Hermitage Holy Mother of God) and Surb Hakob Hayrapet (Saint Jacob of Nisibis).
The Art Newspaper also chronicled the destruction of Armenian heritage throughout Nakhchivan, which once included 89 churches, 5,840 cross-stones, and more than 22,000 tombstones, according to documentation from 1964-87 collected by independent researcher Argam Ayvazyan. Because religion and ethnicity are closely linked, it is difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.