There is a long and documented history of Azerbaijan trying to alter or erase traces of Armenian cultural and religious identity within the region of Artsakh/Nagorno Karabakh. Azerbaijan has begun to distort the Ghazanchetsots Cathedral in Shushi under the guise of ‘renovation’. The Armenian Council of America grieves with the Armenians of Shushi and all around the world because this erasure is unacceptable. This erasure feels like the continuation of the genocide — a systematic wiping out of who we are from the land that we call home.
The Armenian Council of America recognizes and stands for Armenians of all faiths and religious practices as well as those of no faith or religious practice. Within this plurality, we also recognize the significant foundation that Christianity and Christian practice has been for the development, history, culture, traditions, and identity of Armenia. This is an identity that our geographical neighbors have tried to stamp out and erase; in their destruction of our Khachkars, their rewriting of history to deny Armenian influence, and their aggressive and illegal military action against Artsakh. The Armenian people of Shushi have been run out of their city, their homes have been destroyed by war, and their holy place is being overtaken.
Holy places, like the Holy Savior Cathedral (Ghazanchetsots), are sites of worship for those who hold them sacred. They are the places that people go to encounter God. Entire communities gather and support one another at these places, and they are the spaces where individual and communal identity is formed and understood. The attempt to destroy, control, alter, or even erase a holy site, is an attempt to destroy, control, alter, or erase the worship that happens in that place — and by extension the people who worship there and the Divine to whom they worship. Azerbaijan’s dismantling of Ghazanchetsots Cathedral is an assertion of power over Artsakh as a whole. To manipulate a worship space is to try to manipulate the people who worship there — to rewrite their stories and their understandings of themselves and their God. This is an unacceptable form of oppression. Article 18 of the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights states “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” This so-called ‘renovation’ seeks to infringe upon that right and take away the very tangible space that has been so important to the spiritual life of so many Armenians.
This cathedral was rebuilt in 1997 after the First Artsakh War. It has since stood as a symbol of the liberation of the city of Shushi and, as Catholicos Karekin II said, as a symbol of the Armenian Liberation Movement. It was the site of worship and hope attached to the idea of the Independent Republic of Artsakh — the symbol of the people of Artsakh being able to live in the land they call home as a free and self-determined nation. It had become a pilgrimage site for Armenians all over the world, who yearn to worship on the physical land of their ancestors: bearing witness to the spiritual experience of their foremothers and fathers and with hopes of having their own spiritual experience — one grounded in cultural and religious history. In dismantling this cathedral, Azerbaijan is continuing their efforts to erase Armenians from the land of Artsakh. Whether by military attack or cultural erasure, the ACA condemns Azerbaijan’s attempts to distort Armenian identity. And this destruction of property, adds insult to the injury that the Armenian people still endure in the wake of the 2020 war. We are still awaiting the release of ethnic Armenian prisoners of war held captive by the Aliyev regime, some of whom we know to be civilians. The ACA demands the release of these Armenians, who are being held against their will, in violation of international law, and we urge the entire international community to do the same.
On May 3rd, President Biden waived the restrictions on U.S. aid to Azerbaijan in relation to “Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act and its renewal…which allows the U.S. to provide military assistance to Azerbaijan so long as the Secretary of State certifies that such assistance does not contribute to conflict in the region.” The ACA urges President Biden to reinstate the restrictions upon Azerbaijan and to put pressure on their government to release the ethnic Armenians that are held captive as prisoners of war. The Armenian people and the people of Artsakh deserve the right to preserve our holy sites and the right to religious freedom. The Armenian people deserve to be able to engage in religious and spiritual practices in our holy places as we see fit, without the interference from those who would seek to change or alter that practice. The survival of who we are and how we live is at stake: this is not just our history but it is our present reality. We deserve the right to live and worship in our homeland freely and in peace.
Alisa Hovagimian Unell M.Div. M.A.C.E.F.
Director of Religious Affairs
Armenian Council of America