In the 2021 International Religious Freedom Report, the US State Department documents Azerbaijan’s ongoing destruction of Armenian monuments and refers to attempts to “Albanize” Armenian heritage in territories under its control.
Reports quote a bishop from the Armenian Apostolic Church as saying that since May the government has denied Armenian pilgrims access to a monastery in the territory, which was under Azerbaijani control after the 2020 war.
The report recalls that in a resolution adopted on 27 September 2021, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) condemned the damage “deliberately caused to cultural heritage during the 6-week war, and the deliberate bombardment of the Holy Savior (Ghazanchetsots) Shushi Cathedral, and “the destruction or damage to other churches and cemeteries during and after the conflict”.
The resolution also said that PACE remained “concerned, in light of past destruction, about the future of the many Armenian churches, monasteries, including Dadivank Monastery, and stone crosses and other forms of cultural heritage that are income under the control of Azerbaijan”. The resolution expressed “concern over a developing narrative in Azerbaijan promoting a ‘Caucasian Albanian’ heritage to replace what is considered an ‘Armenian’ cultural heritage.
“During the year there were numerous reports of vandalism and destruction of Armenian cultural and religious sites, as well as deliberate government actions aimed at severing and distorting the connection between religious sites and their Armenian heritage. . The government’s actions and rhetoric declaring the churches to be “Caucasian Albanian” have prompted international observers, Armenian officials, civil society representatives and the Armenian Apostolic Church to express serious concerns about the preservation of ties Armenians with historical and religious sites now under Azerbaijani control,” the state said. The department’s report reads.
For example, he notes that on May 4, the Foreign Ministry said that the Azerbaijani-funded reconstruction of the Cathedral of the Holy Savior in Shushi was “consistent with the original architectural style in order to restore the historical image of the city and awarded renovations to the site to reflect the “Caucasian Albanian” heritage. Armenian officials said such statements attempt to conceal the church’s Armenian roots and structure, including the original spire. In a letter to UNESCO, Acting Minister of Education, Science, Culture and Sports of Armenia Vahram Dumanyan accused Azerbaijan of actively implementing “a policy of falsification of historical facts by labeling Armenian cultural heritage sites in the newly returned territory as “Caucasian-Albanian”. “On September 27, Caucasus Heritage Watch (CHW) reported that the Azerbaijani government had embarked on a major campaign after the November 2020 ceasefire to claim that Armenian heritage sites do not exist or have Caucasian Albanian origins.
The report also recalls that following the November 2020 ceasefire, the leaders of the Armenian Apostolic Church asked Russian peacekeepers to protect the medieval Dadivank monastery in the Kealbajar district. The government initially allowed Armenian pilgrims to visit the church, but access became increasingly difficult throughout the year. According to media and Armenian Apostolic Church authorities, two groups of pilgrims were denied access to the monastery in February and April. Azerbaijani authorities cited COVID-19, flooding and road damage as reasons for denying access to groups of pilgrims who were ready with escorts of Russian peacekeepers to visit the monastery, according to the Armenian Apostolic Church . By year’s end, in addition to the monastery, no Armenian pilgrims had been allowed to visit any religious site in Azerbaijani-held territory (where no Russian peacekeepers were present) since May 2.
The State Department notes that on May 26, the BBC reported the removal of a cross from the top of St. Yeghishe Armenian Church in Mataghis. A video reposted in March by Armenian mediator Armen Tatoyan on social media showed soldiers wearing Azerbaijani and Turkish insignia desecrating the church.
“In June, The arts journal released a report using satellite imagery that detailed the destruction of medieval Armenian churches in Agulis, Nakhchivan. The churches were seen in the 1977 images but were missing in the 2016 and 2019 images. The destruction included Surb Stepanos (Saint Stephen), probably founded in the 12th and 13th centuries, the medieval city 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 (Grand Hermitage Holy Mother of God) and Surb Hakob Hayrapet (Saint Jacob of Nisibis). The arts journal also chronicled the destruction of Armenian heritage throughout Nakhchivan, which once included 89 churches, 5,840 stone crosses and more than 22,000 tombstones, according to documentation from 1964 to 1987 collected by independent researcher Argam Ayvazyan. Because religion and ethnicity are intertwined, it is difficult to categorize many incidents as being based solely on religious identity,” the State Department said.