The grainy footage is unmistakable. The interpretation isn’t. And the implications could reverberate from Moscow to Tehran to Tel Aviv.
Dozens of men with sledgehammers pound slabs of stone in an otherwise empty mountainous field. Filmed in 2005 by the prelate of northern Iran’s Armenian church, Bishop Nshan Topouzian, the clip purports to show the destruction of khachkars, ornately carved headstones from a Christian graveyard, some dating back to the 6th century.
The site is in Nakhchivan, an enclave of primarily Muslim Azerbaijan geographically separated from the country by primarily Christian Armenia. Iran shares its southern border in the ethnically tangled web of states that make up the Central Asian Caucasus. Russia is to the north, Turkey to the west.
The destruction of more than 2,000 khachkars—in addition to 89 churches, 5,480 cross stones, and 22,000 tombstones—has been labeled “the greatest cultural genocide of the 21st century” by Simon Maghakyan, an Armenian American activist and scholar whose research was profiled in the Guardian. He believes the move represents a campaign by the Azerbaijani government to wipe out its Christian heritage.
“The destruction of these khachkars seems to match in scale and tragedy ISIS’ destruction of Palmyra in Syria and the Taliban destruction of the Bamayan statues in Afghanistan,” said Wissam al-Saliby, advocacy officer at the United Nations for the World Evangelical Alliance.
“This issue goes beyond religious freedom. It is the heritage of mankind.”
But Azerbaijan denies Armenians ever lived in Nakhchivan, and cites similar cultural cleansing of Muslim heritage across the border. Centuries of mutual recrimination have resurfaced, as Azerbaijan presents itself internationally as a model of interfaith coexistence.
Other political factors also interfere. The Armenian-majority enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh wants independence. Now, 25 years after its ceasefire with Azerbaijan, France, Russia, and the United States are chairing a peace committee while the region exercises de facto autonomy.
And in 2018 a popular “Velvet Revolution” brought a leadership change to Armenia, ushering in new hope and negotiations for peace with Azerbaijan. Both nations were former states of the Soviet Union, achieving independence in 1991.
Armenia, the first nation to officially adopt Christianity as its state religion, is a traditional ally of Moscow, hosting a Russian military base. Azerbaijan, a Shiite-majority nation, has troubled ties with Iran but good relations with Israel. It is this feature that has attracted recent attention from the US evangelical world.
“I have no intention of getting caught up in the politics of these nations,” said Johnnie Moore, a commissioner with the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, “but look forward to playing a role that facilitates peace, and to give credit where credit is due on both sides.”
Moore visited Azerbaijan in his personal capacity in 2018 as he worked to forge evangelical friendships in the region. In 2016 Pope Francis also came in a two-nation tour, visiting the Christian-majority Georgia as well. Last March, Rabbi Marc Schneier brought a group of pastors as part of his Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, dedicated to improving Muslim-Jewish relations.
In Azerbaijan, Moore visited synagogues seized during the Soviet era that have been returned to local Jews. He spoke with evangelicals in the Bible Society who cooperate with the Russian Orthodox. And he witnessed Azeri Sunni and Shiite Muslims at prayer in the same mosque.
“I believe Azerbaijan is a model for peaceful coexistence between religions,” he said, “and they were doing it before it was a trend.”
Moore was invited by Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who first visited in 1972.
“Once you talk about Armenia and Azerbaijan, it gets very complicated,” Cooper said. “But I wear a yarmulke, walk all over Baku at night, and there has been absolutely no enmity—it is a blast of fresh air.”
But not to everyone.
“The primary aim of the Azerbaijani government is to eliminate everything Armenian,” said Hrayr Jebejian, head of the Bible Society in the Gulf. “Removing the khachkars is not only an offense against Armenia, but of Christian civilization.”
A Lebanese citizen of Armenian descent, Jebejian founded the Bible Society in his homeland following its independence from the Soviet Union. Neither there nor in Nagorno-Karabakh has he observed any destruction of Muslim heritage.
And despite Azeri efforts to gain international Muslim sympathy, Jebejian says the conflict is ethnic, not religious.
“Highlighting the ongoing tragedy, in light of the US evangelical delegation report about religious openness, is a challenge,” he said. “One the international media and community has to meet.”
Muslim sympathy has registered with Azerbaijan. The Organization of the Islamic Conference condemned Armenian “ethnic cleansing,” while ISESCO, the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization akin to UNESCO, named Nakhchivan—the site of the alleged destroyed khachkars—the Islamic Cultural Capital for Asia in 2018.
But ISESCO has also included Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Red Monastery in Sohag on its Islamic World Heritage list, and the country announced a $71 million package to restore synagogues and Jewish sites.
Kazakhstan celebrated the discovery of ancient Christian gravestones. Its International Center for Rapprochement of Cultures supports archaeology that advances the country’s self-perception as a nation of diverse religious faith. So does the United Arab Emirates, which promoted a Nestorian monastery. Turkey is taking steps to promote Ani, nicknamed the City of 1,001 Churches and the site of an ancient Armenian Christian community, as a historic locale. Further east, Japan has cooperated with UNESCO to designate a place of Christian persecution as a World Heritage site.
Azerbaijan also cites its current toleration. Nearly all Armenians fled the capital of Baku following a pogrom in 1990, but the Church of St. Gregory has been preserved along with its 5,000 manuscripts.
The preservation of cultural heritage is a form of soft power diplomatic outreach. The US Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation supported secular sites in Armenia and Azerbaijan, as well as religious ones in Kosovo, Egypt, and Iraq.
And the State Department’s roundtable to promote religious freedom has also taken on the theme. Morocco, headquarters to ISESCO, agreed to host the first Regional Conference on the Preservation of Cultural and Religious Heritage.
Al-Saliby, a Lebanese evangelical, knows the complex history of interfaith dynamics in the region. While he appreciates modern tolerance and international legal framework for religious freedom, they are not enough.“We cannot celebrate religious freedom without the preservation of Christian heritage,” he said.
“But these two nations are also at war. I can’t see how both can be advanced if we do not engage in peacemaking between the Azeris and the Armenians.”
Jayson Casper is Middle East correspondent for Christianity Today.