Christian minority in Azerbaijan gets rid of Armenian eye sore

Christian minority in Azerbaijan gets rid of Armenian eye sore

Agence France Presse — English
February 17, 2005 Thursday 4:23 AM GMT

NIJ, Azerbaijan Feb 17 — When a Christian people in this predominantly
Muslim republic ground away the Armenian inscriptions from the walls
of a church and tombs last month to erase evidence linking them to
Azerbaijan’s foe, they thought they had the interests of their small
community in mind.

But now the tiny Christian church in the former Soviet republic of
Azerbaijan has become the focus of a big scandal as the Udi minority
struggles to find its identity in an ideological minefield.

The church, which has not been used since Azerbaijan became part
of the Soviet Union, has become the center of a dispute between the
Norwegian backers of the reconstruction, who consider the alterations
to be vandalism, and the Udi community.

“We have no God, our people lost their religion under communism and
this church is our only hope of reviving it,” said Georgi Kechaari,
one of the village elders who doubles as the ethnic group’s historian.

“But we live in Azerbaijan, and when people came into the church and
saw Armenian letters, they automatically associated us with Armenians,”
he said.

The Udi, who once used the Armenian alphabet, have struggled to
separate their legacy from that of their fellow Christians, the
Armenians, who fought a war with Azerbaijan and have been vilified

Erupting just before the break-up of the Soviet Union, the war
cost both countries tens of thousands of lives but Azerbaijan lost
Nagorno-Karabakh – an ethnic Armenian enclave – and seven other
surrounding regions which have been under Armenian control since the
two countries signed an uneasy ceasefire agreement in 1994.

Since then nearly everything associated with Armenia in Azerbaijan
has been wiped away, although hundreds of thousands of Armenians
lived here before the war.

Armenian-sounding city names have been changed, streets named after
Armenians have been replaced with politically correct Azeri surnames,
while Soviet history glorifying Armenian communist activists has been
rewritten in school textbooks.

But the white-stone church in Nij, some two centuries old, had not
been tampered with until the Udi undertook to reconstruct it with
help from the state financed Norwegian Humanitarian Enterprise (NHE).

“It was a beautiful inscription, 200 years old, it even survived the
war,” Norway’s Ambassador to Azerbaijan Steinar Gil told AFP. “This
is an act of vandalism and Norway in no way wants to be associated
with it.”

But the Udis insist they erased the inscriptions to right a historic

Kechaari alleged that the Armenian inscriptions, which stated that
the Church was built in 1823, were fakes put there by Armenians in
the 1920s so that they could make historical claims to it.

The Udis are the last surviving tribe of the Caucasus Albanians,
a group unrelated to the Mediterranean Albanians, whose Christian
kingdom ruled this region in medieval times before Turkic hordes
swept in from Central Asia in the 13th and 15th centuries.

They number under 10,000 people and Nij is the only predominantly Udi
village to survive to this day, and although they call themselves
Christian, there is little that Christians from other parts of the
world would find in common with them.

The Udis have not had a pastor for nearly a century and celebrate
Islamic holidays together with their Muslim neighbors.

But while the Udis soul search for an identity, Azerbaijan has used
their legacy to strengthen its claims to Karabakh.

Armenians argue that the multitude of churches in the occupied region
proves that they as a Christian people can lay a historic claim to
it. But Azeris, who consider themselves to be the descendants of
Albanians who were assimilated into a Turkic group, say the area is
rightfully theirs because the churches were actually built by their
ancestors the Albanians.

To the Udi, who used Armenian script when their church was built,
toeing the official Azeri line has become more of a priority than
historical accuracy.

The perception that they are one with the Armenians has meant that
there has been little trust from the authorites; Udi men for example
were only allowed to start serving in the Azeri Army two years ago.

But their use of power tools to fit the status quo took their Norwegian
sponsors by surprise.

“They think they have erased a reminder of being Armenian … instead
they have taken away the chance to have a good image when the church
is inaugurated,” the director of the NHE in Azerbaijan, Alf Henry
Rasmussen said, adding that a visit to the church by Norway’s prime
minister will probably now be cancelled.

“Everyone will stare at the missing stones, I’m not quite sure if we
can continue our work there,” Rasmussen said.