Photographs taken from nearby hills and publicized on Monday showed the Holy Savior Cathedral stripped of its conical dome and cross that was perched on it. Other parts of the 19th century church, commonly known as Ghazanchetsots, were covered in scaffolding.
Azerbaijani authorities did not immediately comment on those changes. Karabakh’s human rights ombudsman, Gegham Stepanian, said they are trying to “distort” the appearance of the white stone church “under the guise of renovation works.”
The Armenian Foreign Ministry issued a statement condemning what it called an act of “vandalism aimed at depriving the Shushi Cathedral of its Armenian identity.”
“It’s noteworthy that Azerbaijan is carrying out actions at the Shushi Cathedral without consulting with the Armenian Apostolic Church, which clearly violates Armenian believers’ freedom of religion,” said the statement. “It is equally concerning that Azerbaijan has started to change the architectural appearance of the church before the launch of a UNESCO expert assessment mission.”
Senior Armenian lawmakers added their voice to the condemnation during a session of the National Assembly. Lilit Makunts, the parliamentary leader of the ruling My Step bloc, accused Baku of seeking to “eliminate all traces” of Armenian history and culture from territory occupied by the Azerbaijani army during last year’s war.
The Shushi cathedral was twice hit by long-range Azerbaijani missiles during the war. The missiles left a gaping hole on a lower roof of the church but did not damage its dome.
Azerbaijani forces captured the strategic town overlooking the Karabakh capital Stepanakert just days before a Russian-brokered ceasefire stopped the hostilities on November 10. Armenian officials have since repeatedly accused them of desecrating Armenian cemeteries, churches and other monuments in and around Karabakh.
Yerevan has also expressed serious concern about the fate of the medieval Dadivank monastery located in the Kelbajar district just west of Karabakh.
Although the district was handed over to Azerbaijan in late November, Russian peacekeeping forces set up a permanent post at Dadivank to protect Armenian clergymen remaining there. The peacekeepers also periodically escort Karabakh Armenian worshippers to the monastery for religious ceremonies.