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Bishop and peers call for protection for Christian sites in parts of Nagorno-Karabakh

04 December 2020

The disputed territory is moving under the control of Azerbaijan

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A man kisses the door of the Armenian Church of the Holy Sunday in the town of Lachin (Berdzor), in Azerbaijan, last month.

A man kisses the door of the Armenian Church of the Holy Sunday in the town of Lachin (Berdzor), in Azerbaijan, last month.

THE Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, has called for public guarantees that Azerbaijan will preserve Christian places of worship in parts of the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh which are moving under its control, under the terms of a ceasefire agreed early last month.

Photos have been shared on social media of churches and cathedrals in parts of Nagorno-Karabakh which are damaged and covered in graffiti after ethnic Armenians fled the area. Azerbaijanis have said that mosques in parts of the region have been damaged and used to store livestock.

The Russian-brokered ceasefire has been greeted with fury in Armenia, where the majority of the population are Christian. It was the first nation to adopt Christianity as the state religion, in 301. Azerbaijan is predominantly Muslim.

The ceasefire brought to an end six weeks of fierce fighting in a decades-old conflict that reignited in September (News, 2 October). Under the deal, Azerbaijan will hold on to several areas where it had gained control during the fighting — areas that had been held by Armenia for several decades — and Armenia will withdraw its troops from them.

Many Armenians are fleeing their homes before the terms of the deal are enforced; some are even opening graves to take the remains of dead relatives with them. Homes are also being set alight to prevent Azerbaijanis’ moving into them. Two thousand Russian peacekeepers will monitor the truce.

Dr Smith, in a letter to The Times and in a written question in the House of Lords, had called for the principle of self-determination to protect the minority rights of ethnic Armenians. A group of fellow peers, led by the Conservative Lord Sheikh, wrote an unpublished letter to The Times rejecting this argument. The letter was then issued by the Embassy of Azerbaijan. This response argued that “Armenia has already utilized its right to self-determination, and simply cannot create a second Armenian state in what is an internationally recognized territory of Azerbaijan.”

Responding to the embassy, a statement signed by the Bishop, Baroness Cox, Lord Alton of Liverpool, and Lord Moylan says: “Without public guarantees on the physical preservation of all Armenian places of worship and religious houses in the territory they are moving into under the joint statement, and of the rights of the Armenian clergy and religious community to continue to run them and live in them, questions will rightly be raised as to the seriousness of Azerbaijan’s commitment to peace and security, particularly given the previous systematic erasure of centuries-old Armenian religious sites in the Azerbaijan enclave of Nakhchivan.”

The medieval Armenian cemetery of Jugha, in Nakhchivan, regarded by Armenians as the biggest repository of medieval headstones marked with Christian crosses, khachkars, was completely demolished by 2006. A delegation from the EU has not been allowed to visit the site, and has condemned the destruction.

Dr Smith said that he and other peers would “monitor” the situation and “where applicable support the internationally recognised precedent for self determination”.

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