the Djulfa region of the country’s Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic, amid growing tensions in the area, an influential religious rights group said Thursday, January 26.
Washington-based International Christian Concern (ICC), claimed "the act of cultural cleansing" resembled the spirit of the Armenian Genocide, which it called "an attempt by Muslim countries in the region to erase all memory of a thriving Christian culture that existed in the Caucasus area since the fourth century."
Azeri officials denied its forces destroyed the cemetery saying that these statements "simply target misleading the international community," local media reported.
The head of the President’s Office International Relations Department, Novruz Mammadov, accused Armenians of trying to misinform the US Senate and House of Representatives. “The truth is that 20 percent of Azerbaijan’s territory has been leveled,” he said in published remarks.
Despite a 1994 cease-fire, Azerbaijan has yet to resolve its conflict with Armenia over the Azerbaijani Nagorno-Karabakh enclave which is largely Armenian populated. Azerbaijan lost 16 percent of its territory, and must support some 571,000 internally displaced persons as a result of the conflict, according to the US Central Intelligence Agency.
However ICC suggested that it has evidence that the government’s actions are "on the same level as the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha statues (in Afghanistan) in 2001 and the desecration of Jewish cemeteries throughout Europe."
"The shocking videotape of the systematic demolition of this treasure of world Christian heritage documents for all to see a deliberate act of hatred against a long-persecuted Christian nation and – more broadly – an affront to all Christians around the world.”
It said that in mid-December of 2005, roughly 200 Azerbaijani soldiers "were caught on videotape using sledgehammers to demolish a sacred site of the Armenian Apostolic Church." It claimed that the "shocking videotape of the systematic demolition of this treasure of world Christian heritage documents for all to see a deliberate act of hatred against a long-persecuted Christian nation and – more broadly – an affront to all Christians around the world.”
The cemetery dates back to the 7th Century and was once home to as many as 10,000 intricately carved stone-crosses known as khatchkars, ICC said.
"We are profoundly troubled by the Azerbaijani government’s desecration of the Armenian Christian cemetery in Djulfa -particularly the destruction of irreplaceable carved stone crosses, many over a thousand years old," added ICC president Jeff King in a statement obtained by BosNewsLife.
The ICC said the alleged attack followed previous demolitions in 1998 and 2002 and "effectively destroyed this site – erasing forever a true treasure of world heritage."
ICC also criticized the US State Department for allegedly remaining silent over the issue. The State Department recently acknowledged however that "animosity toward ethnic Armenians" has "forced most Armenians to emigrate, and all Armenian churches, many of which were damaged in riots that took place more than a decade ago, (have) remained closed."
US officials estimate that 20,000 ethnic Armenians have been unable to attend services at their traditional places of worship because of the closures.
ICC suggested that the destruction of the cemetery and apparent government pressure on Armenian Christians resembled the atmosphere that preceded the 1915 genocide when over 1.5 million Armenian, Hellenic, and Assyrian Christians were allegedly killed as Azerbaijan and Turkey "sought to eradicate the historical memory of the thriving Christian presence in the Caucasus and Anatolia."
The Christian Armenian legacy in this part of the world dates back to the apostles Thaddeus and Bartholomew and, later, Armenia’s conversion to Christianity as a state religion in the year 301, experts say. Turkey, which wants to join the European Union, has come under international pressure to acknowledge the mass killing of Armenians from 1915 as a "tragedy."
France passed a law officially recognizing the Armenian genocide in 2001, cooling relations with Turkey and jeopardizing a major arms deal. At least another 14 nations, including Switzerland, Russia and Argentina, also classified the killings as genocide. (ICC can be reached via website: http://www.persecution.org. With BosNewsLife’s Stefan J. Bos, BosNewsLife Research and reports from Azerbaijan and the United States).