Fear of Christian cultural genocide in Azerbaijan is unfounded - Shneor Segal

The bombs finally stopped falling on Nagorno-Karabakh, the weapons were laid down, the fighting ceased. But the war story persists, even if it has changed in tone, Azerbaijan's Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Shneor Segal wrote in his article published in famous Swiss media portal ‘Tribune de Geneva’.

"While it is about the return of these lands to Azerbaijan, many fear that these artifacts will be destroyed. In this region, the anticipation of what many would be tempted to describe as “a Muslim invasion” led many Armenians to take crosses from churches and burn their own homes. In a recent report published by Bloomberg about the Armenian ethnicities in the region, a resident tells the camera: “In the end, we prefer to blow up or burn [nos maisons] rather than leaving anything in the hands of Muslims," noted Shneor Segal.

Azerbaijan's Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi states: "I was struck by the fear that inhabited this man. As a Jew and religious leader in Azerbaijan, a Muslim country, and based on my personal experience, I find it difficult to understand this feeling. I go so far as to wonder if this man has ever met an Azerbaijani. For me, Azerbaijan is a country rich in its melting pot, at the crossroads of cultures and religions; an oasis of cultural preservation in a region of the world marked by ethnic divisions and religious violence."

Taking the example of the Jewish experience, Chief Rabbi adds:"Many were forced to flee during the wars of the past decades, their communities becoming the target of attacks, assassinations and kidnappings by jihadists. In Azerbaijan, they remain a thriving community. With an estimated population of 15,000, mountain Jews are in fact the largest Israelite community in Azerbaijan, with a total of 25,000."

"There are indeed three distinct groups of Jews in Azerbaijan: Mountain Jews, Georgian Jews, and Ashkenazi Jews, of whom I am the Chief Rabbi. But my country is not only a refuge for this one people who, historically, have been so badly received almost everywhere else. The Azerbaijani population is also made up of Sunni and Shiite Muslims as well as various branches of Christianity, including a small Catholic community. No less than 30,000 Armenians even consider Azerbaijan to be their country," reads the article.

"It is also important to note that this Azerbaijani tradition of conserving and protecting its religious heritages is not limited to its borders. Through the Heydar Aliyev Foundation – a charity whose vocation is to promote Azerbaijani culture internationally – the country has subsidized the restoration of Christian monuments and artefacts around the world. Although we could not cite them all here, Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, the Catacombs of Saint Sebastian in Rome, or even the 14th century stained glass windows of Strasbourg Cathedral, are good examples.

This same foundation, in association with Jewish organizations, also participates in the construction and development of Jewish schools in Azerbaijan. Yet fear of the impending destruction of the region’s Christian artifacts at the hands of Azerbaijan continues to grow. It is true that these fears are not totally unjustified. Every war has its share of atrocities inflicted by all its belligerents, and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is one of the longest and most intractable in the world.

During several decades of wars, many Christian monuments and other religions were unfortunately destroyed. I was personally saddened to read that Muslim houses and cemeteries were razed under Armenian occupation. According to some estimates, more than 100,000 artefacts were destroyed as well as the museums that housed them. I also remember a particularly heinous incident involving the desecration of a mosque which angered the Muslim world.

With these elements still fresh in memory, it can be understandable that the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh are afraid of suffering “reprisals” based on cultural differences. They should not. The world is watching us closely. The Azerbaijani president has already guaranteed his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin – Armenia’s most important ally – that Azerbaijan is committed to protecting Christian holy sites in the region. As a Jew and as an Azerbaijani, I think my country’s history on these topics speaks for itself."

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