By Mr. Mubariz Gurbanli, the Chairman, the State Committee on Religious Associations of the Republic of Azerbaijan
On March 25, 2021, BBC News reported on the disappearance of the Armenian Church in the Azerbaijani city of Jabrayil. However, allegations by the Armenian Foreign Ministry and the Armenian National Commission for UNESCO that Azerbaijan has committed any “cultural crime” are unacceptable.
Despite Azerbaijan’s tolerant and equal approach to the rights of religious minorities and various religious monuments as well as compliance with obligations under international law, the Armenian side and its supporters continue a smear campaign against our country by circulating false information.
The claim of the “disappearance” of the church in the Jabrayil region must be considered in the context of the conflict. First and foremost, the temple was illegally built on the ruins of Azerbaijani monuments five years ago, when Armenia occupied the sovereign territory of Azerbaijan for nearly 30 years. Even at that time the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group stated that the temple in Jabrayil was built for Armenian soldiers as a part of military unit, and Azerbaijan protested at the state level. From this point of view, a building illegally constructed by the invaders for personal purposes 5 years ago cannot be considered as a historical and cultural monument.
On the other hand, the Second Karabakh – Patriotic War, which ended with the glorious victory of the Azerbaijani army, has resulted in the liberation of the occupied territories and made possible to fully reveal the vandalism and terror committed for almost 30 years against historical and religious monuments. Armenian side tries to distract the attention of the world community from the main issue – the crimes committed during the occupation by spreading the inexhaustible misinformation such as “Mythical hydro” to prevent the organization of visits by representatives of various countries and organizations (officials of international organizations, diplomatic corps, influential media outlets) to these areas and impede the international interest to expose the essence of Armenian fascism and war crimes. From this point of view, the outcry around the “temple” by the opposite side should not be considered accidental event.
At the same time, Armenia has not allowed international missions to visit the occupied territories of Azerbaijan during its decades of occupation policy. This fact has been reflected in the reports of international organizations. Thus, the UNESCO Action Report published in 2005 stated: “Although the Azerbaijani government has expressed concern about the protection of cultural heritage in Nagorno-Karabakh and other occupied territories and requested that a fact-finding mission be sent to these territories, it was unworkable due to the Armenian occupation. “
The war crimes committed by the Armenian aggressors against the cultural monuments in the territory of Azerbaijan during the occupation were also recorded by foreign journalists who witnessed the places and called city of Aghdam “the city of nightmares”, “little Hiroshima”. It is no coincidence that the deliberate and planned destruction of settlements by the Armenian state was highlighted in a video made by the BBC correspondent Jonah Fischer in Jabrayil, which was the subject of one of the questions addressed to the Armenian official.
It should be noted that before the occupation in August 1993, 5 historical mosques, nearly 50 shrines and dozens of historical architectural monuments in the Jabrayil region, where 96% of the population was Muslim Azerbaijanis, were completely destroyed in the last 27 years. There was no any church at all in the district.
It is a known fact that ethnic cleansing and genocide were carried out in the UN-recognized territories of Azerbaijan occupied by Armenia for almost 30 years, more than 60 existing mosques, about 200 shrines were marred or desecrated by keeping pigs, as well as Albanian Christian temples were Gregorianized – Armenianized or demolished. The Orthodox Church in Khojavend was looted and razed to the ground by Armenians. In only one of the mosques in the previously occupied territories – the Yukhari Govhar Agha Mosque in Shusha, under the guise of “restoration” carried out (2016-2018), the inscription of the mosque was altered and presented as a mosque of another country and, its historical originality was vitiated.
Erasing or alienating the cultural heritage of the historical and ancient lands of Azerbaijan aimed to separate the Azerbaijanis from these territories and to provide the world community with the falsified information.
With the aforesaid outrages, Armenia blatantly violated the requirements of the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, 1992 European Convention on the Protection of the Archaeological Heritage and 1972 UNESCO Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage.
Today, the Azerbaijani side is always loyal to the commitments of its international obligations in the preservation of historical, cultural, and religious heritage in its ancient territories liberated by the Second Karabakh War. The Azerbaijani Armed Forces did not inflict any damage on civilian objects, religious sites.
Azerbaijani government would immediately restore all religious monuments destroyed by the Armenian armed forces and work out a plan on socio-economic development in the territories liberated from occupation. According to the Presidential instructions, the restoration process was launched based on the “Great Homecoming (Return)” program. The Coordination Headquarters, including a working group on historical and cultural monuments was created, cultural institutions were established, and a strategic action plan was prepared.
Thus, Azerbaijan is the most interested party in sending an independent and comprehensive international mission to the region to properly document the destructions in the liberated territories. It is disappointing that international organizations such as UNESCO have not sent fact-finding missions on these issues during 30 years. Such cases give serious grounds for doubting the objectivity and fairness of international organizations and institutions. However, Azerbaijan is holding a constructive dialogue with UNESCO, and we hope that this mission will take place soon.
To this day, international organizations such as ISESCO, the International Organization of Turkish Culture (TURKSOY), the Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States (CCTS), and the International Foundation for Turkish Culture and Heritage have carried out missions in the liberated areas and urged the world community to denounce the atrocities done by Armenians.
Today, in Azerbaijan, religious tolerance is characterized as a state policy. The socio-economic policy pursued under the leadership of President Ilham Aliyev, the successes and the stability in the socio-political life are also reflected in the sphere of religion. Coverage of all religious denominations by comprehensive attention and care of the state – annual allocation of funds by the head of state in order to support the activities of religious denominations, free natural gas supply to all places of worship, regular repair of all historical and religious monuments and other measures are one of the most obvious examples of attention and care for our national and moral values. Armenian Apostolic Church in the center of Baku is among the monuments renovated and protected by the State. At present, a unique Armenian literature fund and depository fund are kept in the church, which is included in the Presidential Library Fund of Azerbaijan. At the same time, the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, under the auspices of the First Vice-President of the Republic of Azerbaijan, First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva, provides comprehensive assistance in the restoration of religious monuments abroad. Catholic and Orthodox churches and synagogues in Baku have been repaired and put into service by the State.
Summarizing the above-mentioned facts, a rhetorical question arises:
Do Armenia, a country which deliberately targeted, exploited cultural heritage of Azerbaijan, perpetrated vandal acts againts not only Islamic but also Christian monuments in the once-occupied territories, committed war crimes, and its supporters who turned a blind eye to these crimes, have any legal or moral rights to accuse Azerbaijan?!