About the Azerbaijani project to convert Berdzor’s Surb Hambardzum Church into a mosque

As of August 8, 2022, the Azerbaijani Maiden Tower telegram channel posted a proposal made by Azerbaijan's "Public Organization for the Protection of Monuments" to convert the Surb Hambardzum Church in Berdzor into a mosque. The proposal was published on their page and can be found at the following link: Telegram: Contact @MaidenTower. The reference to the mentioned Azerbaijani telegram channel is linked to the transfer of Berdzor city, as well as Aghavno and Sus settlements, under Azerbaijani control on August 25, 2022. This event sparked numerous discussions on the Azerbaijani media platform. Regarding the future fate of the Surb Hambardzum Church in Berdzor, there are generally two opinions prevalent in Azerbaijani social platforms and news media. The first opinion suggests that the church is considered a "symbol of the Armenian occupation" and, therefore, should not be preserved. The second opinion proposes the idea of converting the church into a mosque.

The proposal to convert the Berdzor church into a mosque is predominantly circulating within the Azerbaijani social sphere through the aforementioned organization (https://www.facebook.com/AbidlriniMudafiTskilatiIctimaiBirliyi). This proposal was originally published on the page by Tural Zeynalov on January 28, 2021 (Tural Zeynalov - Əziz dostlar ABİDƏLƏRİ MÜDAFİƏ TƏŞKİLATI... | Facebook). The author of this proposal is Faik Ismayilov, whose personal page mostly features content related to Berdzor. Furthermore, it's worth noting that Faik Ismayilov serves as the principal coordinator of Azerbaijan's "Monuments Preservation Public Organization." This particular organization operates with an official website (http://monuments.az/), which has faced allegations of historical falsification for apparent propaganda purposes.

Additional details regarding the project were disclosed on March 5, 2021, through a YouTube video uploaded by the @monuments.az organization (LAÇIN Kilsə Məscidə çevriləcək - YouTube). As per the project proposal, the church's dome and belfry will be dismantled, and two minarets will be built. Furthermore, the bass reliefs, crosses, and enchased khachkars in the church will be removed. If this project is implemented, it will lead to the barbaric removal of significant elements, such as the bass relief on the church's lintel, meticulously crafted by the renowned sculptor Artashes Hovsepyan, depicting the Virgin Mary with the Christ child. Additionally, the valuable sculptures adorning the church, the crosses, the intricately engraved khachkars, and the beautifully decorated church stage will also be taken away.

It is worth noting that the topic of the proposed changes to the Berdzor church was widely discussed on various Telegram channels and social platforms during 2021-2022.

Following the takeover of Berdzor by Azerbaijan, there was a lack of information available about the state of the church. Though Azerbaijanis shared many photos and videos of the city on social media, very few of them showed any images of the church. The dimensions of the church became visible only in videos showcasing scenes of Berdzor. Recently, a video surfaced on social networks displaying some Azerbaijanis chanting an Islamic prayer inside the church (https://www.youtube.com/shorts/ZxWy3m1pACE). Another video revealed that the crosses were removed from the church, yet the building remained intact and seemingly undamaged (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fn260Mx54KZ0).

On June 23, 2023, a video was published showing the church dome (and possibly other parts of the building) being incorporated into construction decks (https://www.tiktok.com/@haykazunner/video/7246252617154710792?fbclid=IwAR0TmQyoP95SUW9ViPZnxhsv_dn8WfZnqMV- XNJJ7ZqTzKHX-eJstyUM1h8). This has raised concerns that the church may potentially be converted into a mosque, given recent indirect and informal signals regarding its fate, such as the emergence of these decks. However, it is important to note that our team lacks sufficient evidence to arrive at a more definitive conclusion.

Our response

The propaganda and construction activities aimed at converting the church into a mosque, reflect Azerbaijan's policy of misappropriating and manipulating Armenian cultural heritage. These actions have escalated after the decision of the International Court of Justice in The Hague on December 7, 2021, where the court demanded that Azerbaijan refrain from causing any damage to Armenian values of cultural heritage, including its appropriation policy. These actions were also condemned by PACE (Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe) in resolutions 2391 and 2022 on September 27, titled "On the humanitarian consequences of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict." Furthermore, resolution 2582 of March 10, also by PACE, addressed the destruction of cultural heritage in Nagorno-Karabakh.

This project blatantly disregards the essential principles of historicity, authenticity, and integrity of the monument, as outlined in the 1994 Nara Document on the Authenticity of Cultural Heritage adopted in Japan (https://www.icomos.org/charters/nara-e.pdf), as well as the document adopted by ICOMOS in New Delhi in 2017 (http://www.icomos-isc20c.org/pdf/madrid-new-delhi-document-2017.pdf), and various documents from UNESCO and other international organizations. According to the Nara Document on the Protection of the Principles of Authenticity, when cultural values clash, it is essential to accept the legitimacy of different cultural values. It is crucial to emphasize UNESCO's fundamental principles, which state that the responsibility for the protection and management of cultural a value lies with the community that developed them. Article 4 of the 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and Article 9 of the Second Protocol of 1999 expressly forbid any alteration or transformation, appropriation of cultural property, as well as any change in its use, to conceal or destroy cultural, historical, or scientific evidence.