Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict: A Fight about International Law not Religion
Oct 16, 2020
The city of Shusha in Nagorno-Karabakh region, which is recognised as part of Azerbaijan by the UN, has been in the news after the bombing of a historic cathedral located there during the current fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Last week Armenia accused Azerbaijan of targeting Holy Saviour Cathedral, an iconic site in Shusha for the Armenian Apostolic Church, which was shelled during the recent clashes, which broke out on 27 September. 20% of Azerbaijani territories, including Shusha, have been under de facto Armenian control since the early 1990s despite 4 UN resolutions asking for immediate withdrawal of Armenian forces.
Both sides have blamed each other for the current violence with Azerbaijan countering the Armenian claims of damage to civilian targets with their own accusations against the Armenian army firing on civilians in Ganja, Tartar, Beylagan, Garbanoy and Mingachevir – home to the biggest power plant in the South Caucasus. These regions are a long way from the centre of hostilities and have no military targets.
The Armenian accusations concerning the bombing of the cathedral in Shusha risk reopening old scars and igniting a religious motive behind the war, where none exists.
Armenia has a national Christian religion, which is a very old form of Christianity that was the first to be identified as a state religion. As a national church, it plays an important part in the spiritual life, development of the national culture, and preservation of the national identity of the people of Armenia.
But Azerbaijan is known as a secular state, which is tolerant and multicultural as it embraces many different religions. Whilst the majority of the population of the country is Muslim, religious observance tends to be low, and Muslim identity is based more on culture and ethnicity than religion.
People of many religions co-exist harmoniously in Azerbaijan, including Jewish, Christians and others, and the constitution guarantees that people of all faiths may choose and practice their religion without restriction. While restoring and funding dozens of churches and 7 synagogues at home, Azerbaijan also provides support for the restoration of religious sites abroad, including the cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris, the Marcellino and Pietro Catacombs in the Vatican, synagogues and churches in Georgia. Known as the land of no-antisemitism, Azerbaijan has been home for centuries to the ancient Mountain Jew community in Quba, the largest all-Jewish town outside Israel.
It would be an absolute travesty if the current war, which is fundamentally about international law and the sovereign control of territory, were to degenerate into bickering and propaganda about religious differences. It is absolutely essential that the brokers for peace in this regional conflict deal with the legal issues at stake of land and sovereignty, and they should not allow either side to start trading insults, which are based upon racial or religious stereotypes. This will only inflame passions and tempers in the torrid Caucasus, when it is the qualities of patience and restraint that are in short supply at present.