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Azeris Divided Over Armenian Cleric's Landmark Visit

Some believe Catholicos trip will boost Karabakh peace process, but for other wounds still too deep.
By Kenan Guluzade

The visit of the head of the Armenian Church to Baku last week, the highest-level  trip to Azerbaijan by an Armenian for more than a decade, was seen by some local analysts as another small step on the road to peace between the two countries, though  other Azeris were unconvinced  by the gesture.

Garegin II, Catholicos of All Armenians, met President Ilham Aliev and visited a derelict church in central Baku, which was damaged by fire in anti-Armenian riots in 1990. He prayed in the building, and a group of Armenians sang hymns. Afterwards, he hoped that one day all his fellow-believers would have the chance to do so as well.

 “We were very distressed by the fire, which destroyed the frescoes. There are no graves of the church’s  priests. The church was turned  into a library and has stayed like that. We hope and pray of course that a time will come when the church will start work once more, and believers will be able to pray there and make confession,” the Catholicos told Azerbaijan’s ANS state television.

The Catholicos, who as their spiritual head is a very significant figure for the world’s eight million Armenians, discussed with Aliev Nagorny  Karabakh, which is ruled by Armenians but considered internationally  part of Azerbaijan.

He told Aliev that the mosque in Shusha, a town in Karabakh which Armenians call Shushi and which was once mainly inhabited by Azeris, would be fully  restored.

“The Catholicos of all Armenians brought  to the president’s attention that a decision on the restoration of the mosque has already been taken. And not only a decision has been taken, the architectural plan has been prepared and the project for the reconstruction of the mosque. The repair works will start in the coming days,” Yeznik  Petrosyan, an archbishop, said

The derelict Armenian church  is in the very centre of Baku, on Fountain Square. The square is currently  being restored, but the church is stranded behind a fence and the entrance is from a neighbouring  street. Some recently  planted  plane trees are growing in the church’s  little yard.

The church  is a rare reminder that once Baku was a major centre of Armenian life. Between 16,000 and 30,000 Armenians currently  live in the city – which is a long way below the almost 400,000 who called it home at the end of the Soviet period.

Boyukaga Agayev, director of the Centre for Strategic Investigations, said the visit was a good sign for Armenian-Azerbaijan relations, which have been frozen since a ceasefire ended the Karabakh war in 1994.

“Let them meet. First of all journalists  visit enemy countries; then it’s the turn of sportsmen, officials and intellectuals. Today, the Catholicos of all Armenians has visited Baku, and maybe our Sheikh-ul-Islam  will  visit Yerevan. In my opinion, it would be entirely logical if the diplomats and the heads of state held their talks not somewhere far off, but in the capitals of our states,” he said.

Aliev said it was crucial that Armenians and Azeris found a way to live together.

“We live next to each other… Armenians live here, and there are Azeris in Armenia. In the past, there were no problems. Reconciliation is absolutely necessary,”  he told Euronews in an interview.

“And after that, contacts can start, and we will see what will be the final status of Nagorny Karabakh.”

Garegin II came to Azerbaijan to take part in the World Summit of Religious Leaders. The summit included  around 300 religious leaders from 40 countries in the former Soviet Union, Orthodox  churches  elsewhere, the Vatican, Turkey,  Arab countries, Europe and America.

“As religious leaders, you have an essential role to play in ensuring that the values of equality, tolerance and mutual respect, which lie at the core of all the world’s great religions, are defended, promoted and used to truly  enrich our societies,” said United Nations General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon in a message to the summit.

“You can encourage dialogue that respects the importance of tradition but also embraces change. You can foster contacts and create conditions that will lead to sustainable peace, social justice and cultural cohesion.”

The Azeris and Armenians are currently  debating the so-called Madrid Principles, which would look to create a final settlement of the Karabakh question. They  would  include  Armenians returning the regions around Karabakh to Azeri control; the granting of an interim status to Karabakh, including guarantees for its security and autonomy;  the creation of a corridor between Armenia and Karabakh; the final status of the region being decided by referendum;  and the right of return for all refugees.

Not all Azeris, however, were happy that  the Catholicos had come to talk peace in Baku, or that he had met Aliev. A group of refugees held a protest outside the summit building.

“The Armenian Church is conducting an aggressive policy and is not repenting of its actions against Azerbaijan,” said the Organisation for the Liberation of Karabakh in a statement.

“We were all witnesses of the fact that the Armenian Church was the clearest agitator for the idea of seizing Azerbaijan’s territory. Apart from that,  neither  the previous, nor the present Catholicos of All Armenians has condemned those guilty  of genocide against Azeris in Khojaly ,”  said Haji Ilgar Ibrahimoglu,  head of the Centre in Defence of Freedom of Conscience and Religion.

Khojaly is a town in Karabakh where hundreds  of Azeri civilians were killed during the Karabakh war, in an assault some Azeris call an act of genocide.

“This is enough to show, admittedly  not  openly, the position of the Armenian Church in this question,”  he said.

Kenan Guluzade is editor-in-chief of the website Analitika.az.

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