Human rights activist calls on UNESCO to ensure protection of Christian historic sites in Nagorno-Karabakh

A human rights activist asks UNESCO to ensure the protection of Christian historical sites in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Dadivank, a monastery of the Armenian Apostolic Church in the Kalbajar district of Azerbaijan. / Armen Hay via Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0).

London, England, February 18, 2022 / 03:00 (CNA).

A British human rights activist this week asked the UN cultural agency to ensure the protection of historic Christian sites in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Caroline Cox (Baroness Cox), an independent member of the British House of Lords, made this call in a February 15 letter to Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO.

“I am writing to express my deep concern about the fate of the Armenian Christian churches, Khachkars (carved stone crosses) and cultural heritage sites of Nagorno-Karabakh, which are now under the control of Azerbaijan,” a- she writes.

“The sites include 161 churches including the historic Dadivank Monastery, Ghazanchetsots Cathedral in Shushi, the ancient city of Tigranakert, the Paleolithic cave of Azokh and the tombs of Nor Karmiravan.”

Armenia and Azerbaijan, neighboring countries in the South Caucasus region, engaged in a 44-day war in 2020, leaving thousands dead and tens of thousands fleeing their homes in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Azerbaijan regained control of a number of towns and villages ahead of the signing of a ceasefire agreement on November 10, 2020.

Armenia, the oldest Christian nation in the world, has a population of nearly three million, 92% of whom belong to the ancient Armenian Apostolic Church.

Azerbaijan is a country of 10 million people, 99% of whom are Muslims.

Nagorno-Karabakh is a region located in Azerbaijan near the Armenian border. The area is recognized by the United Nations as belonging to Azerbaijan but is administered by ethnic Armenians.

Cox, founder and chairman of the Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust, said UNESCO had repeatedly requested access to historic sites since the ceasefire, but without success.

“In December 2021, the International Court of Justice declared that Azerbaijan should “take all necessary measures to prevent and punish acts of vandalism and desecration affecting Armenian cultural heritage, including, but not limited to, churches and other places of worship, monuments, monuments, cemeteries, and artifacts,” she wrote.

“Yet, in February 2022, Azerbaijan set up a new working group to ‘remove fictitious traces written by Armenians on Albanian religious temples’.”

“This is historical revisionism – a campaign of appropriation that dates back to the 1950s, whereby the Azerbaijani authorities continue to rewrite history and replace the word ‘Armenia/Armenian’ with ‘Caucasian Albanian/Caucasian Albanian’.

Local media reported on February 3 that Azerbaijani Culture Minister Anar Karimov announced the creation of a task force to restore what the government claims are “Armenized” Albanian places of worship.

ACI Stampa, CNA’s Italian-language press partner, explained that the claims relate to a theory advanced by Azerbaijani historian Ziya Bunyadov in the 1950s that Armenian inscriptions on churches in Azerbaijan only date back to the XIXth century.

According to the theory, the churches are the remains of the ancient kingdom of Caucasian Albania, which existed in the territory of present-day Azerbaijan until the beginning of the 9th century.

The thesis is rejected by most historians, but defended by the Azerbaijani government.

In her letter, Cox described the task force’s creation as a “serious cause for concern,” given what she called the “prior systematic erasure of centuries-old Armenian religious sites” in Nakhchivan, an enclave of Azerbaijan located to the west. from Armenia.

“I was present in Nakhitchevan in the early 1990s when Azeri military forces drove tens of thousands of Armenians from their homes in their former homeland, a policy of religious and ethnic cleansing which was relaunched in the fall of 2020” , she wrote.

Official portrait of Caroline Cox (Baroness Cox). Chris McAndrew via Wikimedia (CC BY 3.0).

“Between 1997 and 2006, Azerbaijan destroyed tens of thousands of UNESCO-protected Armenian monuments in Nakhchivan. All visible evidence of their presence has been eradicated, so there is no longer any visible evidence of their existence.

Azerbaijani officials reject suggestions that they are failing to save historic sites. ACI Stampa said the Culture Ministry had criticized reporting by “biased foreign media” and stressed that Azerbaijan had always “treated its historical and cultural heritage with respect, regardless of its religious and ethnic background”.

Cox concluded his letter by asking Azoulay to “raise these pressing concerns with your network and supporters.”

“I would also appreciate your advice on how we could work together to ensure the protection of these historic Christian sites,” she wrote.

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