It’s one thing to admire from afar, to view on a computer screen, to listen in fortuitously, or even to engage virtually with the help of the marvelous tools of technology. It’s an altogether different and exhilarating experience to tread directly on hallowed ground, to step softly onto sacred soil, to burrow deeply into the cradle of Armenia’s Christian tradition, to enter respectfully the glorious house of faith built by St. Gregory the Illuminator himself, to arrive, at last, to the one-and-only Holy Cathedral of Etchmiadzin.
That honor and opportunity came to Los Angeles-based Deena Dulgerian, who leaped over the great expanses of time and space to represent the Armenian Bar Association at an international conference on the protection of religious freedom and cultural rights which convened from September 9-10, 2021, at the Holy See of Etchmiadzin in Armenia. Ms. Dulgerian, who practices in the complex litigation group of the international law firm known as Orrick, met and conferred with religious leaders of various churches and humanitarian organizations, international lawyers, art and cultural historians and academics.
The conference, entitled “International Religious Freedom and Peace,” featured panel discussions about the impact of the war in Artsakh on the population’s free exercise of their religion, the protection of cultural heritage under international law, the interconnection between cultural heritage and religious freedom, and summaries of the destruction and preservation of various religious and cultural sites and relics in Armenia and Artsakh.
What follows is a special glimpse into Ms. Dulgerian’s raw insights and impressions of the conference which the Armenian Bar Association supported as a partner organization:
The conference was one of the most unique experiences I’ve had as both a lawyer and an Armenian. Although each panelist expressed the same general concerns and calls to action, their backgrounds and tenacity differed.
It was comforting to see so many non-Armenians, both ecclesiastical and secular, interested in and who have contributed to the issues of Armenian religious freedom and cultural preservation; it is common sense after all that Armenia holds such importance historically and for Christians globally.
As lawyers, we are accustomed to conferences that focus only on the dissemination of information or the use of the platform as an echo chamber. However, several panelists had concrete calls to action.
For example, Sheila Paylan (Human Rights Officer, United Nations Human Rights) explained the possibility of creatively extending the established “responsibility to protect” doctrine under international law, commonly used for the protection of human lives against mass atrocities, to cultural heritage. Simon Maghakyan (visiting scholar at Tufts University and lecturer in International Relations at University of Colorado) encouraged people to continue to make pilgrimages or at least try to do so to maintain a visible connection to our religious sites. Taoula Hadjitofi (Cyprian-Dutch author and artifact-recovery activist) discussed the value of Armenians involved in this field to connect with Greeks, Cyprians, and others who have experienced the same sort of destruction at the hands of the Turks and Azeris to illustrate a broader pattern of Turkic-based cultural genocide to the rest of the world. Dr. Christina Maranci (Dept. of History of Art and Architecture at Tufts University) noted that small successes can be had, and in fact may be more likely, in preservation when working with smaller NGOs and organizations, instead of only the larger organizations; and specifically as to how non-academics can help, she said that those who have traveled to religious sites in Artsakh can send their touristic photos so that experts can retract necessary imagery from them, especially for sites that are no longer accessible.
With the guidance of Father Garegin Hambardzumyan, I was also able to briefly present the Armenian Bar Association’s Third Report to the United Nations’ Special Rapporteurs on Cultural Heritage (Karima Bennoune) and Freedom of Religion or Belief (Ahmed Shaheed), with the goal of gaining the support of the attendees and their organizations as signatories to the report. The current report, which can be found here, is a follow up to the Armenian Bar’s previous reports to the Special Rapporteurs which documented the destruction by the Azeri forces of churches, religious relics, and other sites in Arstakh, such as Soorp Ghazanchetsots.
The Third Report builds upon that information with updated accounts of destroyed religious sites and relics, the harassment of Armenian clergy at Dadivank by Azeri forces, and accounts of Armenians and others who have been denied access and ability to worship in Armenian churches under Azeri control. From this presentation, we were able to immediately gain two signatories, Save Armenian Monuments and Research on Armenian Architecture Foundation. The report was submitted to the Special Rapporteurs on September 14th, but based on the connections established at the conference, more signatories have signaled their support for the Third Report and for the preservation, protection and rightful return of Armenian religious and cultural properties and rights.