A British human rights campaigner asked the U.N.’s culture agency this week 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 the appeal in a Feb. 15 letter to Audrey Azoulay, the director-general of UNESCO.
“I write to express my deep concern about the fate of Armenian Christian churches, Khachkars (carved stone crosses), and cultural heritage sites in Nagorno Karabakh, which are now under Azerbaijan’s control,” she wrote.
“The sites include 161 churches, including the historic monastery at Dadivank, Ghazanchetsots Cathedral in Shushi, the ancient city of Tigranakert, Azokh Paleolithic Cave, and the Nor Karmiravan tombs.”
Armenia and Azerbaijan, neighboring countries in the South Caucasus region, engaged in a 44-day war in 2020, resulting in thousands of deaths and tens of thousands of people fleeing their homes in the disputed region of Nagorno Karabakh.
Azerbaijan regained control of a number of cities, towns, and villages before a ceasefire agreement was signed on Nov. 10, 2020.
Armenia, the world’s oldest Christian nation, has a population of almost three million people, 92% of whom belong to the ancient Armenian Apostolic Church.
Azerbaijan is a country of 10 million people, 99% of whom are Muslim.
The region of Nagorno Karabakh lies within Azerbaijan close to the Armenian border. The area is recognized by the U.N. as belonging to Azerbaijan but is administered by ethnic Armenians.
Cox, the founder and president of the Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust, said that UNESCO had repeatedly sought access to the historic sites since the ceasefire, but without success.
“In December 2021, the International Court of Justice said 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, landmarks, 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 Azerbaijani authorities continue to rewrite history and replace the word ‘Armenia/Armenian’ with ‘Caucasian Albania/Caucasian Albanian.”
Local media reported on Feb. 3 that Azerbaijan’s culture minister Anar Karimov announced the creation of a working group to restore what the government claims are “Armenianized” Albanian places of worship.
ACI Stampa, CNA’s Italian-language news partner, explained that the claims relate to a theory advanced by the Azerbaijani historian Ziya Bunyadov in the 1950s that Armenian inscriptions on churches in Azerbaijan date back only to the 19th century.
According to the theory, the churches are the remnants 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 championed by the Azerbaijani government.
In her letter, Cox described the creation of the working group as a “serious cause for concern,” given what she said was the “previous systematic erasure of centuries-old Armenian religious sites” in Nakhichevan, an exclave of Azerbaijan located to the west of Armenia.
“I was present in Nakhichevan in the early 1990s when Azeri military forces were driving tens of thousands of Armenians from their homes in their ancient homeland, a policy of religio-ethnic cleansing that was revived in the autumn of 2020,” she wrote.
“Between 1997-2006, Azerbaijan destroyed tens of thousands of UNESCO-protected Armenian monuments in Nakhichevan. Every visible evidence of their presence was eradicated so there is now no visible testimony to their existence.”
Azerbaijani officials reject suggestions that they are failing to safeguard historic sites. ACI Stampa said that the Ministry of Culture has criticized “biased foreign media” reports and stressed that Azerbaijan has always “treated its historical and cultural heritage with respect, regardless of its religious and ethnic origin.”
Cox concluded her letter by asking Azoulay to “raise these urgent concerns with your network and supporters.”
“I would also be grateful for your advice about how we could work together to ensure the protection of these historic Christian sites,” she wrote.