The Azerbaijani authorities on Thursday refused to allow U.S. Ambassador Matthew Bryza to visit an ancient Armenian cemetery in Azerbaijan that was reportedly destroyed by them in 2005.
The cemetery, which once had thousands of intricately carved Armenian cross stones, or khachkars, is located near Julfa, a town in the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhichevan.
Videos that emerged in late 2005 purportedly showed Azerbaijani troops attacking the UNESCO-protected gravestones. They elicited condemnation from the European Parliament and other bodies.
The Azerbaijani government denied their destruction at the time. Still, a 2006 report by the London-based by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) confirmed that the cemetery has vanished. The IWPR said its journalist was near enough to see that the cemetery was gone.
In a statement posted on its website, the U.S. Embassy in Azerbaijan said Bryza tried to travel to Julfa during a two-day visit to Nakhichevan that ended on Thursday.
“The ambassador’s request to visit Djulfa was denied,” the embassy said. “But authorities in Nakhchivan did discuss the Djulfa Khachkars in detail with Ambassador Bryza and pledged to work with him to facilitate a visit to the Djulfa cemetery in coming months.”
“As I pledged to do in Washington before arriving as Ambassador, I traveled to Nakhchivan to investigate what happened in Djulfa,” Bryza was quoted as saying. “As I said at the time the cemetery destruction was reported, the desecration of cultural sites – especially a cemetery – is a tragedy, which we deplore, regardless of where it happens.”
“I have worked actively to protect Armenian churches in Tbilisi, as well as Azerbaijani mosques in Shusha and Aghdam. Preservation of these cultural and religious monuments is of immense human importance, which transcends all political, cultural and religious differences,” he added.
Bryza served as U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state from 2005-2009. His alleged failure to “meaningfully respond” to the destruction of Julfa’s cemetery was among the concerns expressed by the Armenian National Committee Of America (ANCA) during last year’s congressional hearings on his nomination for the post of U.S. ambassador in Baku.
Those concerns were echoed by two U.S. senators who blocked the congressional endorsement of Bryza’s candidacy. They pressed Bryza on why he waited three months to condemn the reported desecration.
Bryza told them in July that he needed time to look into those reports. “I asked our embassy to investigate what had happened, and as that information came in and it became clear to me what had happened, then, absolutely, I publicly issued that condemnation,” he said.