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Monument Plans Arouse Suspicions

Confusion over restoration plans for an old Azerbaijani mosque in Shusha and the Armenian church in Baku.
By Fuad Husseinzade

Plans to restore Armenian and Azerbaijani cultural monuments have aroused suspicions in both of the Caucasian countries, divided by war for more than a decade.


A row blew up in Azerbaijan about alleged Armenian plans to restore a former mosque in the town of Shusha in Nagorny Karabakh, which is under Armenian control - only for the Armenians to say the whole issue is a big misunderstanding.


Meanwhile, no one in Baku will officially comment on what plans are being made for the Armenian church in the centre of the city, which is being cleaned and repaired. The Armenian religious authorities in Echmiadzin say they have not been informed about the work there.


A furore erupted in Azerbaijan following the publication of an interview in the Karabakh Armenian newspaper Azat Artsakh with Oshin Egiazariants, who works for the French branch of the Armenian charitable organisation Shen. Egiazariants said his branch was taking up an offer to restore a mosque in Shusha and turn it into a cultural centre and museum.


Shusha, known to the Armenians as Shushi, is called by the Azerbaijanis the "cradle of Azerbaijani culture" and its population was 90 per cent Azerbaijani before the Nagorny Karabakh dispute broke out in 1988. It has two fine old mosques, which are still standing despite being damaged by the fighting over the town in 1992. Bullet holes scar their elegant turquoise minarets and the floors are strewn with rubble, but fortunately neither building suffered major structural damage.


Following the interview, the Azerbaijani religious leader Allahshukur Pashazade sent an indignant letter to his Armenian counterpart, Catholicos Garegin II, in which he termed the plans to restore the mosque "the desecration and destruction of historic monuments".


Receiving Vatican envoy Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran in Baku on September 24, Pashazade said, "I would like to tell the head of the Catholic Church Pope John Paul II that the way the Armenians are turning our monuments, churches and cemeteries into a museum and other buildings is national treachery towards religion, freedom of worship and conscience."


"A mosque is God's house and it is blasphemous to turn it into a museum," Rafik Aliev, head of Azerbaijan's state committee for work with religious organisations, told IWPR. "Turning a mosque into a museum means that there will be exhibits there from other religions, including the Armenian apostolic church, which goes against the meaning of this spiritual centre."


Aliev said that any attempt to restore the mosque without consultation with Baku was inadmissible as all the relevant historical documents about the mosque lay in archives in Baku.


The alleged plans also drew strong condemnation from the culture ministry in Baku and the head of Azerbaijan's UNESCO committee.


However, clarification of the facts by IWPR suggests the whole story may have more to do with the huge information gulf that separates the two sides in the Karabakh conflict, than about the fate of the two Shusha mosques.


A French Armenian working at the Yerevan office of Shen said by telephone that he had just returned from Shusha and that the plans did not concern either of its two mosques.


"We are talking about a small one-storey ruined building that was once a mosque 200 years ago but has been used for decades as the civil marriage centre in the town," said the man, who asked not to be named. "It was used as a mosque in Persian times but not for many years since. It has picturesque art inside which is being destroyed by the rain. They are talking about covering the roof, so work can be done to save the art work inside."


He could not confirm what exactly the new centre that was planned for the building would do or Shen's precise role in repairing the building.


A Karabakh Armenian official, Slava Sarkisian, repeated basically the same message.


"No one is planning to touch the two big Muslim mosques in Shushi, still less to turn them into an Armenian museum," said Sarkisian, who is head of the department for protection and study of monuments in Kasrabakh's ministry of education, culture and sport.


"We are talking about a small structure of Muslim origin not far from the mosques that was badly damaged in the Azerbaijani-Karabakh war. It is not an ancient monument and was built relatively recently. When it is restored the building may be used as an administrative office. I want to remind you that all historical monuments on the territory of Nagorny Karabakh, including Muslim ones, are protected by the state."


Confusion also surrounds the possible fate of the Armenian church of Gregory the Illuminator on Baku's Fountain Square. It was badly damaged by arsonists during the attacks on Armenians in Baku in January 1990 and has been closed for worship since then and its crosses removed.


Several years later, the church, which dates back to the 1860s, was turned into a billiard hall and its courtyard into a teahouse. Many residents of Baku, a city that prides itself on its tradition of tolerance, were angry at this sign of disrespect and the billiard hall and café were both closed by the new mayor of Baku in 2001.


The church is now being repaired. The main entrance has been blocked up, the walls have been cleaned of soot and the rubbish bins have been removed from the courtyard. However, the workers doing these jobs refused to answer any questions.


All Azerbaijani officials questioned about this referred IWPR to the presidential administration, giving the impression that the initiative for this comes from on high. However, no one would give any official explanation about what is going on.


This naturally arouses concern in Armenia. The church used to be the main place of worship for the Armenian Diocese of Baku, which has not been able to function for many years.


"Legally the church in Baku belongs to Holy Echmiadzin," said an Armenian clerical official in Echmiadzin, the centre of the Armenian Apostolic Church, who did not want to be named. "But after the notorious events of 1990 it was confiscated by the Azerbaijani authorities."


The official said that the Azerbaijani authorities had not contacted them about the church.


The two religious leaders, Allahshukur Pashazade and Garegin II, are due to meet on November 4 and the issue of both the Shusha mosques and the Baku church is believed to be on the agenda.


Fuad Husseinzade is a journalist with Interfax Azerbaijan. IWPR correspondents Ashot Beglarian, Karen Topchyan and Thomas de Waal in Stepanakert, Yerevan and London contributed to this report.


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