While many historic churches across Turkey are systematically used for sacrilegious purposes, churches in the Azerbaijani occupied-Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh in the South Caucuses) are bombed. Their statues, bell towers and other symbols are destroyed, bulldozed or vandalized by Azerbaijani forces.
Churches and other elements of Armenian cultural heritage in the parts of Artsakh that are now occupied by Azerbaijan have been attacked by Muslim Azeris. The Ghazanchetsots Cathedral in Shushi, also known as Holy Savior Cathedral, for instance, was severely damaged from two air raids conducted by the Azerbaijani military on October 8. Videos of the destruction reveal extensive external and internal ruin. This includes broken pews, scattered rubble and a partially collapsed ceiling, reported the Armenian Weekly.
From September 27 to November 10, Azerbaijan targeted Armenians in the Armenian Republic of Artsakh throughout its invasion campaign of the region with the support of Turkey and Al-Qaeda-affiliated fighters imported from Syria.
Through a deal brokered by Russia and imposed on Armenia on November 9, parts of Artsakh were granted to Azerbaijan. War crimes committed by the Azerbaijani government during that period – such as indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas, beheadings of civilians and prisoners of war, and the destruction of Armenian graves – are widely documented.
For instance, some of the crimes committed against churches by Azeri forces from November 12 to 19 included:
One of the angel statues at Ghazanchetsots was destroyed and Ghazanchetsots was desecrated with graffiti. Garegin Njdeh statue and the cross on Mekhavan’s St. Zoravor Astvatsatsin church were also destroyed by Azerbaijani soldiers. The Statue of Vazgen Sargsyan was vandalized. Another statue in Artsakh was bulldozed and bell towers of Kanach Zham bell was destroyed.
Yet the international community has remained deaf and blind in the face of these blatant crimes and Azerbaijan remains a proud perpetrator. On December 23, the Armenian media reported:
All previous attempts to involve UNESCO in preservation of cultural heritage within the context of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict have been thwarted by Azerbaijan, Spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Anna Naghdalyan said.
The comments come after the UNESCO Secretariat publicly announced that only Azerbaijan has not responded on sending an expert mission of UNESCO to the Nagorno-Karabakh and the adjacent areas, in fact, clearly highlighting Azerbaijan’s destructive approach.
“Let me remind that upon the request of the Armenian side regarding the barbaric destruction of the cross-stones (khachkars) in Old Jugha, UNESCO expressed readiness to visit the region, but it was rejected by Azerbaijan,” the Spokesperson added.
Meanwhile, violations against historic churches across Turkey are ongoing. The Surp Yerrortutyun Church in the Aksehir district of the province of Konya in Turkey has been converted into a “cultural center,” the weekly Armenian newspaper Agos reported on December 28. The church is known as one of the once largest Armenian churches in Anatolia.
The former church will be used as the “The Art House of Humor Masters of the World.” The official date of the opening has not yet been announced.
The Aksehir district no longer has an Armenian Christian population because of the 1914-23 Christian genocide by Ottoman Turkey, in which around 1,5 million Armenians perished. Around 1 million Greeks and Assyrians also lost their lives during the same genocide.
According to professor Raymond Kevorkian’s book Armenians in the Ottoman Empire Before 1915, an approximately 4, 950 Armenians lived in Akşehir, Konya before the genocide. In addition to the Surp Yerortutyun Church (built in 1859) there were also four Armenian educational institutions in the district. Among these schools, the Surp Istepannos School was famous in all provinces for its “superior education quality.”
Despite being a small and oppressed community today, Armenians are among the most ancient peoples of Asia Minor. What is now Turkey was colonized by the Turkic peoples originally from Central Asia during the eleventh century after the Seljuk Turks arrived in Asia Minor and vanquished the Greek-speaking Byzantine Empire at the Battle of Manzikert. Historian Raymond Ibrahim refers to the invasion of Manzikert as “the first genocide of Christian Armenians at the hands of Muslim Turks.”
Yet despite severe persecution and the second class “dhimmi” status, the presence of Armenians and other Christian peoples remained in the region during the Seljuk and later the Ottoman rule.
This situation dramatically changed when Armenians were targeted in massacres by Ottoman Turks and Kurds between 1894–96 and during the genocide of 1914-23. During these attacks, Armenian cultural heritage was also systematically violated. Author Raffi Bedrosyan writes in his 2011 article “Searching for Lost Armenian Churches and Schools in Turkey”:
Considering that every Armenian community invariably strove to build a school beside its church, how many Armenian schools were there in Turkey before 1915, and how many are there now? How many Armenian churches and schools are left standing now in Turkey is the easier part of the issue: There are only 34 churches and 18 schools left in Turkey today, mostly in Istanbul, with about less than 3,000 students in these schools. The challenging and frustrating issue is how many were there in the past.
Recent research pegs the number of Armenian churches in Turkey before 1915 at around 2,300. The number of schools before 1915 is estimated at nearly 700, with 82,000 students. These numbers are only for churches and schools under the jurisdiction of the Istanbul Armenian Patriarchate and the Apostolic Church, and therefore do not include the numerous churches and schools belonging to the Protestant and Catholic Armenian parishes. The American colleges and missionary schools, mostly attended by Armenian youth, are also excluded from these numbers. The number of Armenian students attending Turkish schools or small schools at homes in the villages are unknown and not included. Finally, these numbers do not include the churches and schools in Kars and Ardahan provinces, which were not part of Turkey until 1920, and were part of Russia since 1878.
As researchers are striving to determine the exact number of lost or stolen Armenian schools and churches in their ancient lands in Turkey, Armenian lives and their churches are currently being targeted and destroyed in Artsakh.
Turkey and Azerbaijan, two historic perpetrators of crimes against Christians, are once again brutalizing Armenians in the indigenous Armenian lands before the eyes of the entire world.
What are the Christians in the West and the global human rights community doing today to stop these crimes and demand security and basic human rights for the Armenian people?
Uzay Bulut is a Turkish journalist and political analyst formerly based in Ankara.