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NGO report accuses Turkey, Azerbaijan of genocidal intent in Nagorno-Karabakh offensive

NGO report accuses Turkey, Azerbaijan of genocidal intent in Nagorno-Karabakh offensive

A man prays in Ghazanchetsots Cathedral in Shusha, Azerbaijan after it was partly destroyed by shelling in October 2020. | Christian Solidarity International

A new report by International Christian Concern accuses Muslim-majority Turkey and Azerbaijan of having an intent to commit “genocide” when they launched a weeks-long military offensive in an ethnic Armenian territory last year. 

ICC, a U.S.-based advocacy organization, published the new report “The Anatomy of Genocide: Karabakh's Forty-Four Day War” last Friday. 

The report asserts that the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh (known as the Republic of Artsakh in Armenia), which lasted from September until November 2020,  had strong religious freedom concerns that should alarm human rights advocates and governments worldwide. 

According to ICC, Turkey and Azerbaijan destroyed churches and other religious sites, abused prisoners of war and hired known extremists, including members of the Islamic State, as mercenaries to help regain control of Nagorno-Karabakh. 

The disputed territory is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but has been controlled by ethnic Armenians for decades. 

“Chatter on the Syrian side showed that they were being recruited using jihad terminology against Christians,” the ICC reports of the mercenaries. 

“For example, AsiaNews quoted a source from Syria who explained that they were going to fight alongside Azerbaijan ‘because it is part of the Jihad; it is a holy war of Muslims against Christians.’ Syrian mercenaries reported that they were offered monetary bonuses based on different actions, such as beheading Christians.”

According to the report, one of the more pressing humanitarian issues that have emerged from the offensive is Azerbaijan’s treatment of Armenian Christian prisoners of war, “both military and civilian.”

“Rationalization and justification tactics have been displayed throughout this entire process concerning the POWs,” ICC notes. 

Videos have emerged showing how captors have dismantled prisoners’ “sense of identity and choice.” 

“They are not simply taunted or beaten. Their captors use their power for control and coercion in a manner which reinforces the narrative used to justify the war,” the report reads, adding that ICC viewed one video showing the treatment of three Armenian men dressed as civilians.

“One lies on the ground, presumably deceased. While the other looks on, the captors beat one demanding that he affirms their belief that Karabakh is Azerbaijani,” ICC reports. “He eventually does for the camera. Given the nature of Pan-Turkism, what he is being asked is more than a question of nationality. He is being asked to ignore every aspect of his identity, including his faith.” 

Videos widely shared on social messaging platforms show Azerbaijani soldiers beheading two Armenian civilians who were reported to be non-combatants. Those videos were among several others that have emerged depicting shocking atrocities committed by Azerbaijani soldiers against civilians and prisoners. 

These crimes implicate Turkey because the Turks trained these soldiers, International Christian Concern contends. 

“Indeed, many of the footage of war crimes committed during the conflict show troops wearing the dual patches of Azerbaijan and Turkey, making it hard to distinguish the actual nationality of the perpetrator,” the report explains. 

“As an impression management tactic, this makes accountability challenging by redefining the concept of state while also making clear that whatever this redefined concept of state means, that is who is responsible for initiating the war. Blurring the definition so profoundly reduces the ability for accountability.” 

In places the Turks and Azerbaijanis invaded, they destroyed churches and ancient Christian crosses called “khachkars,” the report said. Video evidence shows the destruction was intended. ICC accused the two governments of holding “Karabakh’s Christian cultural sites hostage.”

“Khachkars are often centuries old, are individually and uniquely crafted, and tell the story of Christianity in that specific location,” ICC stressed.  “Destroying a church prevents corporate worship. Destroying a khachkar erases Christian history.”

For many ethnic Turks in Azerbaijan and Turkey, being Turkish means being Islamic, according to the report. 

As they attempted to destroy evidence of Christian history, Turks and Azerbaijanis emphasized their own history, the report added. Both Turks and Azerbaijanis trace their heritage back to the Ottoman Empire, and Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan refers to the countries as “one nation, two states.” 

Azerbaijan and Turkey were both parts of the Ottoman Empire, which committed the 1915 Armenian genocide. Both nations still argue the murder of 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman government wasn’t genocide.

Erdogan triumphantly invoked the names of leaders involved in the Armenian genocide in a speech delivered after military victories against Armenia.

“Today, may the souls of Nuri Pasha, Enver Pasha, and the brave soldiers of the Caucasus Islam Army be happy,” he stated, according to the Armenian Mirror-Spectator. 

Enver Pasha was the Ottoman Minister of War during the genocide, and Nuri Pasha led troops in the Caucasus that were responsible for carrying out the genocide against the Armenians. 

“Our iron first embodies both our unity and strength. That iron fist broke the enemy’s spine and crushed the enemy’s head. If Armenian fascism ever raises its head again, the result will be the same. Again, Azerbaijan’s iron first will break their back,” said Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev at the same event, according to The Mirror-Spectator. 

To hide violence against Armenians, Turkish and Azerbaijani national media distorted the truth, ICC’s report alleges. 

Media outlets claimed that there was no historical Christian presence in the Nagorno-Karabakh region and that the region originally belonged to non-Armenian people. The Turkish and Azerbaijani state used these claims to justify their offensive. 

“The first narrative denies the historic presence of Christianity in Karabakh. The second narrative redefines it, not as Armenian, but as originally belonging to either the ethnic Udi or Albanian communities,” the ICC report summarizes. 

“In regards to the second, it is noteworthy that at these Christian sites, it is the Armenian language which is written and often engraved onto the stone. Both narratives share in common that they are meant to dismantle and discredit attempts at framing this war within religious freedom terminology. It also sends the subtler message that they will tolerate Christianity only on very specific terms.”  

ICC concludes that the world should take note that the “strategic planning by Turkey and Azerbaijan show an intent of mass extermination, thereby genocide, of Karabakh’s Armenian residents because of their combined faith and ethnic identity.”

“Azerbaijan has made it clear that though they want territorial ownership over Artsakh, they do not want a caretaker role over the residents who live there unless those people validate a particular identity,” the report concluded.

“Both Azerbaijan and Turkey have made it clear these actions are taken because of a Pan-Turkic ideology that prefers conformity to Islam, with some exception for very specific versions of Christianity. These two countries have pursued their actions in a way which elevates and echoes the 1915 genocide of ethnic Christians.”

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