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6/13/2024 Armenia/Azerbaijan (International Christian Concern) — The Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic is an exclave of Azerbaijan surrounded by Armenia, Türkiye, and Iran. A stretch of about 25 miles separates Nakhchivan from the rest of Azerbaijan. Like Artsakh, it was once an Armenian territory that is now under occupation; further, Azerbaijan has almost destroyed the centuries of Armenian Christian heritage in Nakhchivan — the fate of which now faces Artsakh. 

Historically part of Armenia, Nakhchivan faced waves of siege and conquest from the Muslim hordes that overran the Middle East and North Africa from the 7th century onward. The Turks took control in the 11th century, and the Persians in the 16th. Nakhchivan eventually came under the rule of the Russian Empire in the 19th century, and so did the entire South Caucasus region. After the Great War (WWI), the British returned Nakhchivan to Armenian sovereignty until the Bolsheviks conquered the region in 1920. Then, the Soviets made Nakhchivan an autonomous republic within the USSR separate from Armenia and Azerbaijan — a similar status to that of Artsakh under the USSR. 

By 1989, only about 2,000 Armenians remained in Nakhchivan. The fall of the Iron Curtain and the disintegration of the former Soviet Union in the years to come led to the complete exodus of Armenians from Nakhchivan. Unlike Artsakh, Nakhchivan became a de facto part of Azerbaijan in 1991 and continues today. 

After a decades-long struggle for liberty, Artsakh fell to Azerbaijan in September 2023. The Azerbaijani siege and conquest of Artsakh was only a prelude, however, to the ongoing destruction of Armenian Christian heritage in the region. In this, the forgotten history of Nakhchivan under Azerbaijani occupation is an unfortunate forerunner to that of Artsakh. 

International Christian Concern (ICC) recently reported on the Azerbaijani destruction of a historic church and an entire village in the Shushi province of Artsakh. Further, Azerbaijan is also building a large mosque in the ground where the village once stood. A subsequent report shows that Azerbaijan has continued its push to erase the presence of Armenian cultural and historical monuments from conquered Artsakh. 

In May 2023, Caucasus Heritage Watch (CHW), an investigative institution supported by Cornell University, published the results of a comprehensive investigation on the “silent erasure” of Armenian Christian heritage in Nakhchivan. 

The CHW report on Nakhchivan provides “conclusive forensic evidence that silent and systematic cultural erasure has been a feature of Azerbaijan’s domestic ethnic policies.” Between 1997 and 2011, Azerbaijan destroyed 108 out of 110 (i.e., 98%) medieval and early modern Armenian monasteries, churches, cemeteries, and chapels. In most cases, Azerbaijan left the land cleared after destroying an Armenian monument, but it erected mosques or other buildings “directly atop the foundations of an erased Armenian site” in five cases “as acts of symbolic violence.” According to the report, how Azerbaijan executed its policy of complete and total destruction remains uncertain. 

A key finding of the CHW report on Nakhchivan is that the Azerbaijani campaign in Nakhchivan is unique because of its clandestine nature and comprehensive extent. The report cites three incidents when Azerbaijani authorities denied access to historic Armenian sites in Nakhchivan to preserve the secrecy of its policy — a Scottish traveler who was detained and then expelled in 2005, a delegation from the European Parliament in 2006, and the U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan in 2011. Incidents of targeted destruction of Armenian sites remaining amidst already abandoned or ruined villages show the totality of the Azerbaijani campaign. 

A groundbreaking report in 2019 first brought to light evidence of the Azerbaijani cultural genocide. After a CHW-supported report in 2021 further exposed the genocide, Azerbaijan responded with continued denial. Commenting on reports of Nakhchivan, an Azerbaijani official reportedly stated that “there is no such thing as ‘Armenian heritage’ in the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic simply because Armenians never lived there.” Like the Ottoman regime that perpetrated the Armenian Genocide more than one century ago, the Azerbaijani regime covered its tracks with a policy of official denial. 

Lori Khatchadourian, an associate professor at Cornell University and a co-founder of CHW, noted that “Azerbaijan does not want to be known as a state that sponsors cultural erasure.” Khatchadourian pointed out that Azerbaijan invested in UNESCO to portray itself as a “land of tolerance” even as it “undertook a systematic program of heritage demolition.” 

In the CHW report on Nakhchivan, the authors warned of the fate that eventually befell Artsakh in 2023, recognizing that the international community had already paid little attention to the Azerbaijani campaign in Nakhchivan. The authors asserted that “the covert, state-sponsored program that we have documented in Nakhchivan reaffirms the importance of an immediate and resolute international response if the medieval and early modern Armenian monuments of Nagorno-Karabakh [Artsakh] are to be spared the same sad and shocking fate as their counterparts in Nakhchivan.” Nonetheless, like the pleas of other international observers and Armenians, the CHW report’s somber warnings went largely unheeded. 

In May 2024, ICC published an analytical brief exposing, among other things, how the weakness of the international community and the Armenian government itself during the siege of Artsakh “provided tacit approval allowing Azerbaijan to continue its campaign of conquest.” The former simply reprimanded the Azerbaijani state as it openly committed genocide, and the latter failed to act decisively to prevent the destruction of its land and people. The brief thus describes it as “a story of betrayal, for neither the empty promises of the international community nor the compromises of the Armenian government prevented the Azerbaijani siege and conquest of Artsakh.” The case of Nakhichevan, which preceded that of Artsakh yet garnered no attention enough to produce an effective response, further shows such betrayal. 

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