Azerbaijan accused of shelling Armenian cathedral, denies targeting religious sites

Sunlight shines through the whole through the ceiling of the Holy Savior Cathedral in Shushi in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan.
Sunlight shines through the whole through the ceiling of the Holy Savior Cathedral in Shushi in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan. | Twitter/Armenian Unified Infocenter

Azerbaijan was accused Thursday of shelling a historic Armenian cathedral while civilians were inside as fighting over the Armenian-controlled Nagorno-Karabakh region continues after reigniting last month. 

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reports that residents in the town of Shushi say the Holy Savior Cathedral was pierced by two shellings on Thursday, which caused exterior and interior damage.

The cathedral, also known as Ghazanchetsots Cathedral, was built in the 19th century and is part of the Armenian Apostolic Church and is the seat of the Armenian Diocese in Nagorno Karabakh-Artsakh.

A correspondent for the U.S.-funded media outlet reported that women and children were inside the cathedral when the first shelling hit. However, no one was injured. Reportedly, three Russian journalists were injured in a second attack. 

Armenian Foreign Ministry said in a statement shared with The Associated Press that the attack was a "monstrous crime and a challenge to the civilized humankind” and accused Azerbaijan of targeting religious sites.

Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defense denied allegations that it attacked the cathedral and vowed that its forces don’t “target historical, cultural, especially religious buildings and monuments."

"The information that the church in Shusha has been damaged has nothing to do with the Azerbaijani army’s combat operations,” the ministry said in a statement. 

“As distinct from the Armenian armed forces, which damaged civil facilities, residential buildings and also the Imamzadeh religious and architectural monument during the shelling of Ganja on October 4, the Azerbaijani army takes no aim at historical and cultural monuments, especially religious facilities.”

Father Andreas, who spoke with AP, said that “walls of our beautiful cathedral are destroyed.”

"I feel the pain that today the world does not react to what’s happening here and that our boys are dying defending our Motherland,” Andreas added. 

A decades-long clash over the Nagorno-Karabakh reignited in late September. The region is recognized internationally as part of Muslim-majority Azerbaijan. However, the region has a majority Armenian population and is controlled by ethnic Armenians. 

A ceasefire in a war between the two Soviet Union republics was reached in 1994. But recent clashes are said to be the most severe in years. International bodies have called for a de-escalation of violence. Reports have also suggested that Turkey has sent Syrian mercenaries to Azerbaijan to support in the fight. 

A former Azerbaijan reserve colonel argued in comments echoed by Azeri News that the strike on the church seemed to have come from the Armenian side. He also questioned why there are no signs of fire damage at the church. 

Varuzhan Geghamyan, a 29-year-old researcher in Stepanakert, told Fox News that “there are many unexploded bombs on the streets of Stepanakert and Shushi."

"Chaotic shelling of Stepanakert by Azerbaijani army continuous for already 11 days,” Geghamyan said. “So almost whole civilian life is fully conducted in bomb shelters, which resulted in a new humanitarian crisis.”

This is not the first time that the cathedral has been damaged by violence. AP notes that the church sustained damage during ethnic violence in the 1920s and was restored in the 1990s after fighting between the two sides. 

Reuters reports that on Monday, Azeri forces carried out rocket strikes on Stepanakert, an enclave of the region that the Armenian administration deems to be its capital. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan has accused Armenia of firing missiles into towns outside the region. 

On Thursday, Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defense accused Armenia of shelling the villages of Barda and Agjabedi regions. 

The Azerbaijan-based Trend News Agency reports that three civilians were injured in an Armenian missile strike on Garabagh village in Azerbaijan’s Fuzuli district on Friday. 

Seth Frantzman, executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis, told Fox News that the ongoing conflict can be defined by the "unique type of fighting" as Azerbaijan is using armed drones against Armedia’s tanks, artillery and military vehicles. 

"While armed drones have been used for decades by the U.S. in the global war on terror, Baku's decision to deploy hundreds of new types of drones raises the curtain on the future of war," he said. 

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