WASHINGTHON, DC — The head of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, Nadine Maenza,  has expressed serious concern over the Azerbaijani government’s plans to erase Armenian inscriptions from churches in areas in and around Nagorno-Karabakh captured by Baku as a result of the 2020 war.

Azerbaijan’s Culture Minister Anar Kerimov said on February 3 that he has set up a working group tasked with removing “false” Armenian traces from churches which he claimed had been built by Caucasian Albania, an ancient kingdom that covered much of modern-day Azerbaijan’s territory.

Maenza expressed his concerns on the federal government agency’s Twitter page.

“We are deeply concerned by Azerbaijan’s plans to remove Armenian Apostolic inscriptions from churches,” she said. “We urge the government to preserve and protect places of worship and other religious and cultural sites.”

Over the past year Armenian officials have accused the Azerbaijani authorities of systematically desecrating or destroying Armenian monuments in Karabakh. According to them, at least two churches have been torn down since a Russian-brokered ceasefire stopped the six-week war in November 2020.

They have also accused Baku of vandalizing Karabakh’s Holy Savior Cathedral located in the Azerbaijani-controlled town of Shushi. The 19th century Armenian church was stripped of its conical domes and covered in scaffolding a year ago. Azerbaijani officials said it will undergo a major reconstruction.

The Shushi cathedral was twice hit by long-range Azerbaijani missiles during the war.

There are also lingering concerns about the fate of the medieval Dadivank monastery located in the Kelbajar district just west of Karabakh.

Baku claims that Dadivank and just about every other church in the region is “Albanian.” Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev underlined this decades-long policy in March 2021 when he visited a medieval Armenian church in Karabakh’s southern Hadrut district captured by the Azerbaijani army.

“All these inscriptions are fake, they were added later,” Aliyev claimed there.

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