The Threatened Armenian Religious Heritage of Artsakh

January, 2024

On September 19, 2023, after nine months of enforcing a total blockade on the 120,000 indigenous Armenians of Artsakh, Azerbaijan initiated military operations against the enclave which lasted for one day, after which the military checkpoint on the only road into and out of the area was opened and the defenseless population of Armenians was forced to migrate.       

Artsakh was ethnically cleansed of Armenians over the course of one week.

Armenians left behind their homes, livelihoods, farms, fruit orchards, animal herds, vineyards, churches, monasteries, cemeteries and other religious and cultural sites. Now, Azerbaijan is busy resettling Artsakh with Azerbaijani citizens, ceding to them the private homes, farms, vineyards and businesses of the forcibly displaced Armenians. As for the collective Armenian cultural and Christian religious heritage that have also been left behind, reports from the Azerbaijani authorities and other observers indicate that the authorities have undertaken a policy bearing the hallmarks of cultural genocide.  

“Cultural genocide” is the process by which any and all cultural or religious traces of the group of people exterminated or forced to migrate is destroyed or removed from the land.  This process can be accomplished in many ways, among them: outright destruction; erasure (sometimes euphemized as “renovation”) of the distinctive identifying cultural or religious features present in cultural and religious heritage  sites; “reclassification,” i.e. misattributing  the cultural heritage to  another culture; or deliberate undertaking of adjacent construction without enforcement of architectural impact assessments on cultural or religious heritage sites. The targets of the destruction or removal, erasure, reclassification, or neglectful adjacent construction are the very same cultural and religious heritage sites of those who were forced to migrate, including churches, monasteries, and cemeteries. 

A precedential example of “cultural genocide” at the hands of Azerbaijan occurred in recent times in Nakhichevan, a region that was emptied of Armenians by the 1990s. From 1997 until 2006, when there were no Armenians living in the exclave, Azerbaijan set out to eliminate all Armenian religious and cultural heritage from the area. The most notable act of destruction was carried out by the Azerbaijani military in Julfa (Jugha), in an Armenian cemetery where they destroyed thousands of khachkars (carved cross-stones) from the Middle Ages. The state-sanctioned policy was implemented and carried out to such an extent that today in Nakhichevan there is no trace of Armenian religious or cultural heritage remaining.

As we begin the year 2024, we have hope that the international community, religious organizations, cultural preservation organizations, governments, and civil society groups, among others, will speak out and condemn Azerbaijan’s actions and, more importantly, take action to protect the endangered Armenian cultural and religious heritage in Artsakh. The world’s voice, conscience, and might must convey that the pursuit of deliberate destruction of Armenian religious and cultural heritage by Azerbaijan is unacceptable and will be answered with significant consequences for Azerbaijan. Once destroyed, Armenian religious and cultural heritage is irreplaceable and its destruction will leave our world and the Christian community, a poorer place.  

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Religious Persecution and Ongoing Ethnic Cleansing in Artsakh 2023 

June 13, 2023 

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Religious Persecution and Ongoing Ethnic Clensing in Artsakh June 2023

January 22, 2023

120,000 Christians Including 30,000 Children are Under Siege

Help stop genocide, ethnic cleansing and starvation

Since December 12, 2022, Azerbaijan has blockaded the only land corridor connecting 120,000 indigenous Christian Armenians in the landlocked autonomous region of Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh in Armenian) to Armenia. This siege continues decades of  cruel tactics to advance the ethnic cleansing of the remaining Armenian population on the land.

  • Food, medicine, reproductive healthcare products, baby formula and other critical essentials are dwindling; heating gas, electricity, telephone communications and internet connections are frequently shut off as another form of Azerbaijan’s provocation of the Armenian Christians who have lived in Artsakh for more than two thousand years. 
  • The ongoing blockade impacts religious freedoms in several ways, including violating the right to a pilgrimage. 
  • In September 2020, Azerbaijan launched an unprovoked, 44-day war against Artsakh.
  • The lopsided war had Azerbaijan–with technologically-advanced military weapons and radical Islamist mercenaries (paid and transported to Artsakh by NATO-member Turkey)–against a civilian population with a small army. 
  • On November 9, 2020, Russia intervened, forcing a ceasefire statement.
  • Azerbaijan now controls much of the historic Artsakh territories, while a “Russian peacekeeping” contingent attempts to maintain stability, but that has not completely stopped Azerbaijan from further acts of violence.
  • Azerbaijan has made its goals clear: ethnically cleanse the land of all traces of Christian Armenians who have lived there for millennia and assume full control of Artsakh.
  • Azerbaijan is systematically eradicating traces of Armenian religious and cultural heritage sites to claim the land. This cultural genocide involves the outright destruction and false reclassification of Christian churches, monasteries, and carved cross-stones (khatchkars), which are listed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

© 2008, H.L Petrosyan

  • Once destroyed, the Christian religious and Armenian cultural heritage is irreplaceable.

Photos from BBC footage

  • In territories controlled by Azerbaijan, Armenian Christian worshippers cannot access churches for prayer or pilgrimages. The clergy who have remained to safeguard the ancient churches and monasteries are surrounded by Azerbaijani forces who continue to isolate, intimidate, and harass them.  The religious rights of Armenian POWs, whom Azerbaijani still illegally holds, are being violated on a daily basis: the baptismal pendant crosses of the POWs have been confiscated and desecrated; there are reports of forced conversions, and priests are not allowed to visit the POWs.  
  • The 120,000 Artsakh residents are subjugated to psychological threats to force their departure from their ancestral lands. Azerbaijan broadcasts intimidating messages to the villagers by loudspeaker and regularly disrupts their heating gas supply, to further distress the daily lives of the Armenians.  

Help press Azerbaijan for an immediate, unconditional lifting of the Lachin corridor blockade to allow for land and air humanitarian assistance.

Learn more about the siege of Artsakh Read about the destruction of cultural heritage and religious freedom Write to USAID 

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2024 International Law Symposium: Call for Papers

The humanitarian crisis for the ethnic Armenian community of Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) [as a result of Azerbaijan’s complete military encirclement, months-long blockade, and, ultimately, the entire Armenian population’s forced migration out of Nagorno-Karabakh] raise oft-ignored questions about the universality and effectiveness of non-derogable international human rights norms. This Call for Papers seeks submissions of abstracts for papers exploring the relationship between human rights and unrecognized or partially recognized States (viz, countries), particularly in connection with the live issues in Nagorno-Karabakh.

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