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05/11/2021 Caucasus (International Christian Concern) –  Christians in Turkey and Azerbaijan are lamenting their historic churches. In Turkey, an illuminated sign hung between two spires of Hagia Sophia saying “There is No God But Allah” in celebration of one of Islam’s most holy nights. In Azerbaijan, Azeri security forces turned away a group of Armenians seeking to attend church service at the Dadivank Monastery for an ordination ceremony.

The Hagia Sophia was constructed in the sixth century as an Orthodox church on the site of a fourth-century church. In 1453 it was converted into a mosque, and then under President Ataturk Hagia Sophia was converted to a museum, coinciding with the rise of secularism. In 2020, President Erdogan controversially converted the historic church into a mosque, calling it his “crown of 2020”.

In honor of the 27th night of Ramadan, Laylat al-Qadr, or the Night of Power, lights were strung to proclaim “La Ilahe Illallah” (There is No God But Allah) across all of Istanbul. Many international governments and Christians lamented the conversion and the decision to boldly present Hagia Sophia as a mosque.

In Azerbaijan, Christians lament the separation from heritage worship sites and fear how long they may be able to continue visiting the sites that now lie in Azerbaijan territory. On April 25 Azerbaijan’s military blocked a group of 10 Armenian pilgrims seeking to visit Dadivank Monastery for worship and for the ordination of Deacon Manvel Sargsyan. Russian peacekeepers, who have been accompanying pilgrims to Dadivank for security purposes every Sunday since November 2020, were surprised at the refusal. Azeri forces also previously restricted pilgrims from reaching Dadivank Monastery.

Originally a group of 25 Armenians were to visit for Sunday’s worship service. One week prior Azerbaijan notified them that only 15 could visit. Less than 48 hours before the service, they were again notified that only 10 could attend the worship and ordination at Dadivank, including Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenian Apostolic Church Bishop, Deacon Sargasyan and his parents. The small group was delayed at the border and then turned away, with the military citing coronavirus concerns, despite the fact that the servicemen were not wearing masks nor social distancing. The blockage also delayed the delivery of food and supplies to the monks staying at Dadivank monastery, who now must wait until the next convoy is allowed to pass.

As part of the November 9 agreement, Azerbaijan agreed that Armenians would retain access to Christian sites that now fell inside Azeri territory. Around 11 pilgrims visit Dadivank every Sunday for worship, though the arbitrary denial of Armenian Christians on April 25 incites concern about the longevity of this practice.

Turkey and Azerbaijan often communicate that they operate with a one nation, two states mindset. These coinciding restrictions to Christians in their respective countries suggest that each one will continue persecuting and limiting its religious minorities.

For interviews, please contact Addison Parker: [email protected].