Azerbaijan: Land of Intolerance

Over the past several years, the post-Soviet petrostate of Azerbaijan has sought to promote a sanitized image of itself through a targeted media campaign. From elaborate architectural investments, such as the $250,000,000 Heydar Aliyev Center, to all-expenses-paid trips for American and European politicians, the ruling regime has used its vast oil wealth in an attempt to polish its bruised image. This comes on the heels of a slew of exposés criticizing widespread corruption  and an abominable human rights record, including the persecution of journalists in this Caspian state.

Azerbaijani police detain an opposition activist during a protest rally in Baku, Azerbaijan on Oct. 20, 2012 (Photo: AP/HRW)

The most recent public relations stunt has been the country’s “Land of Tolerance” campaign, which claims that the Azerbaijan is a utopia for all three Abrahamic religions and the myriad ethnicities that live within its borders. The reality, however, is that the country in no way resembles  this manufactured religiously and ethnically pluralistic haven. Since the decline of the Soviet Union, the history of Azerbaijan has been rife with ethnic and religious persecution.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the beginning of anti-Armenian pogroms in the city of Sumgait. On Fe. 27, 1988, local Azerbaijani mobs broke into the houses of unarmed Armenian civilians in the city of Sumgait to murder and sexually assault them. As Thomas de Waal writes in his book Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War“roving gangs committed acts of horrific savagery. Several victims were so badly mutilated by axes that their bodies could not be identified.” These crimes were committed under the direct order of the political leadership of the country in response to the peaceful demonstrations in Stepanakert and Yerevan hundreds of miles away.

The massacres and violence only ceased when the central government in Moscow declared martial law and sent in troops. These atrocities were committed solely on the basis of ethnic and religious hatred towards the local Christian Armenians, and led to the forced expulsion of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Armenians from Azerbaijani-controlled territory. Three decades later, these refugees are still unable to return to their homes, and all property that they could not carry on their backs has been stolen by the ruling regime. As a result of the government’s campaign to purge all Armenians from the land it controls, there is no substantial Armenian population left in the Republic of Azerbaijan today.

In addition to the human suffering it has caused, the Azerbaijani state has been keen to eliminate any trace of Armenian civilization on the land it controls. In the exclave of Nakhichevan—where the ruling Aliyev clan hails from—the Azerbaijani government undertook a carefully planned campaign of destruction of the Armenian stone-carved crosses, known as khachkars, in 2005. Azerbaijani soldiers and local vandals used a variety of methods to obliterate the crosses, including using them for target practice, and taking sledgehammers to the intricately carved medieval gravestones, which were registered on the UNESCO-designated Intangible Cultural Heritage list. This act was not only ethnically motivated, but also had religious undertones, as the crosses are a unique symbol of the Armenian church and Armenia’s role as the first country to officially adopt Christianity as a state religion.

Uniformed men, identified as Azerbaijani soldiers, filmed in 2005 destroying the tombstones at the Julfa cemetery in Nakhichevan (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The ruling regime’s intolerance is not limited to persecuting Christians. Though the vast majority of the country’s current population is Shiite Muslim, the government has put a number of restrictions on religious freedom for its citizens. Last fall, the dictatorial regime approved a bill that would ban the participation of children in the remembrance of Ashura, the most important Shiite holiday, which commemorates the slaying of a religious figure by a tyrant. In 2015, the commemorations were banned entirely in Ganja, the second largest city in the country, as well as in the city of Nardaran, and several locales in the Nakhichevan area.

Rallies by anyone opposing the ruling party are viewed with suspicion by the regime, but particularly the religious opposition, who they allege maintain support from the Iranian government. The religiously conservative city of Nardaran has been a hotbed of tension against the ruling Aliyev clan, who have maintained nearly continual power over the country since 1969. In Nov. 2015, more than six people were killed by regime forces, after they raided the city and attempted to imprison a number of its inhabitants. In Jan. 2016, the city was again plunged into chaos after the government arrested more than 60 civilians, which it claimed had been preparing for an uprising. They later sentenced 17 of them to a combined 270 years in prison.

In addition to the Shiite majority, the second largest religious group in the country, Sunni Muslims, are equally targeted by the authorities. Most Sunni Muslims are from ethnic minorities that inhabit the impoverished northern part of the country, which makes them doubly targeted by the ultranationalist regime. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Lezgi people have been among the most vocal to seek greater linguistic, religious, and cultural autonomy vis-à-vis a state that attempts to forcibly assimilate all diversity in the areas it controls. In the early 1990s, a group called Sadval was formed to promote the rights of the Lezgins. Similar to the Kurds in Turkey, the Lezgins were prohibited from learning their own language or developing their culture. This group was subsequently blacklisted by the authorities, after they claimed that Sadval had been responsible for an attack on the Baku metro.

More recently, in March 2015, the imam of the Lezgin Mosque in Baku was arrested, and five worshippers were imprisoned by the state due to their religion and the accusation that they had been selling literature that had not been previously approved by the regime. Other Sunni mosques to have been targeted by the Aliyev dictatorship include the Abu Bakr, Prophet Muhammad, Ashurbey and Mushfiqabad mosques in Baku, the Akhli Mosque in Ganja, as well as mosques in the cities of Qobustan and Shirvan. Practicing Muslims are routinely attacked by the regime, with authorities shaving and burning the beards of men, and forcing women in hijab to take off their veils. Since 2010, in particular, the indigenous inhabitants of the northern areas of Azerbaijan, the Lezgins, Avars, and Tsakhurs, all of whom belong to the Sunni branch of Islam, have been targeted by a xenophobic campaign, which seeks to paint members of those ethnic groups as being terrorists and separatists. In the governorate of Qusar, where 95% of the population is Lezgin, all posts in the local government are held by Azerbaijani Turks. This trend is similar to other parts of the country, where there is no official representation for minorities.

The Talysh, an Iranic-speaking minority in the south of the country, have also been heavily persecuted by the state. The community faces similar obstacles as other discriminated groups in Azerbaijan, but are at particular risk of assimilation, due to the majority of the population being Shiite Muslim. Like the Lezgins, the Talysh have had their linguistic and cultural rights restricted by the regime. As a result of the aggressive language policy of the Azerbaijani government, few ethnic Talysh have even basic knowledge of their own language. In 2007, Novruzali Mammadov, the editor of the Talysh-language newspaper Talyshi Sadowas arrested by the authorities under the accusation that he was spying for Iran. On Aug. 17, 2009, he died while in an Azerbaijani prison. Since his arrest, Talysh activism in Azerbaijan has been repressed to the extent that much of the movement now operates in exile. The official movement for the Talysh people, the National Talysh Movement, is now located in the Netherlands, and is headed by Alikram Hummatov, who was also formerly imprisoned in Azerbaijan for his activism.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev (Photo:

The regime’s attempts to use public relations to whitewash widespread discriminatory practices towards religious and ethnic minorities, is yet another injustice towards them. We should not ignore the pleas of those who are discriminated against by the Azerbaijani government, but instead should encourage further democratization efforts in the country. The best way to achieve that is to put pressure on the Aliyev regime by restricting its sources of revenue and imposing targeted sanctions against the top leadership of the regime. The U.S. government should hold the regime accountable for its crimes and ensure its commitments to international agreements by granting religious and ethnic minorities their freedom. We must see through the Azerbaijani state’s smoke and mirrors. Only then can those persecuted receive the justice they deserve.

Casey Edgarian

Casey Edgarian

Casey Edgarian is an Armenian-American writer from San Diego, who recently graduated with a Master’s in Iranian Studies from the University of Tehran. He has lived and traveled extensively throughout the Caucasus and the Middle East.
Casey Edgarian

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  1. Azerbaijan is a despicable state; no doubt about it. But charity begins at home. Let’s also talk about the abominable record of human rights and the persecution of journalists in Armenia.

  2. The US, Israel are the biggest investors in azerbaijan, it’s money, it’s arms, you name it. As for the UN the most inept and useless organisation sits back and does nothing. Very, very selective in what they do and who they do it to. No wonder azerbaijan gets away with everything under the sun.

  3. Are you kidding me ?
    Armenian citizen writing an article about intolerance in the neighbor Country ???
    What about your own country – military ally of Russia …..with no democracy in the country….with the monument of the nazi German-Armenian general Njdeh Garegin in the center in your capital city – who is responsible for killing over the 30,000 Jewish people during World War 2….with the president Serzh Sargsyan is perpetrator of Khojaly Genocide which ended up with the massacre of 613 civilians in the same neighbor country?
    Do you really think that crying wolf in the United States gonna give you any credit ?

    • Rasim, why AW weekly granted your radicule comments for us??Do you really think crying wolf in Azerbaijan will give our historical Armenian Nation lands back to invader Turks again?? Your entire Azerbaijani lands consider as part of Armenian Highlands, and you have an stolen name from Iran’s AzArbaijan!

    • How “nicely” a Khodjali war incident becomes a “Khodjali genocide” in the mouth of a representative of a newly popped “nation” of Azerbaijan, the very name of which was stolen from an ancient Persian province. I bet an Azeri Turk Rasim Ibrahimov has never heard what former president Mutalibov had said about that particular war incident. Guess whom Mutalibov named the culprits? And I guess Azeri Turk Rasim Ibrahimov has never heard about the Azeri barbarities in Sumgait, Kirovabad, Baku and Maragha most of which preceded a war incident in Khodjali? And of course these defied Azeri attempts to present everything on par with the Armenians. Ugh… Not even thinking deep as to what it means for Armenians, Jews, Greeks, Cambodians, etc. to go through the horrors of genocide in the true and the most gruesome sense of the term that is fully applicable to these nations. Just to keep pace with the Armenians in everything. Ridiculous people… You never could and you’ll never be able.

  4. The article imbued with bias and hatred. Outch(((
    How about the Catholic Church erected in Baku around 2005 and the Orthodox church of Mhyrr-Carrying Wives painstakingly restored by an Azeri entrepreneur. The Armenian Church is standing intact in the very downtown used as part of a library. The two synagogues were rebuilt anew after the independence, and the Lutheran church has regular cermons along with chamber orchestra performances. The preservation and adornment of Noah’s Tomb in Nakhchivan and restoration of the oldest church in Kish, Sheki are just a few other cases to mention. And all those were accomplished after independence on so-called petromoney.
    As for the ban of kids from ashura is absolutely justified due to some stupid practices of shia self-mutiliations that have nothing to do with core principles of Islam.
    The author made really poor studies in his zeal to please the Armenian lobby. No surprise, Armenians in California are trying to be better Catholics than Roman pope, yet, oddly enough, none of them wants to live in depopulate Armenia.
    For those who want to get a bettrr ifo, please come to Azerbaijan, and I will show you a bunch of places of cultural mix in Baku alone.

    • Mr Akhundov – where are the around 100 medieval Armenian churches and monasteries in Nakhchivan that were standing intact in the 1980s? Are they still standing intact, as churches, libraries, orchestra halls or whatever? No – not a single one survives. Where are the thousands of medieval Armenian gravestones at Julfa that were there in the 1980s – are they still standing? No – every one is gone. Video showing them being smashed up by Azeri soldiers (who would probably prefer to have be smashing the skulls of living Armenians), with the fragments then removed by trucks, is easily found on Youtube. Azeri intolerance is so extreme that they could not allow, even in the remotest and least seen corner of their territory, the graves of Armenians dead some 500 years to survive. So I guess your “invite” to come to Azerbaijan will not include an invite to explore Nakhchivan.

  5. In reply to a stupid comment by an Azeri spokesman, even more stupidly deleted by someone at Armenian Weekly: Mr Akhundov – where are the around 100 medieval Armenian churches and monasteries in Nakhchivan that were standing intact in the 1980s? Are they still standing intact, as churches, libraries, orchestra halls or whatever? No – not a single one survives. Where are the thousands of medieval Armenian gravestones at Julfa that were there in the 1980s – are they still standing? No – every one is gone. Video showing them being smashed up by Azeri soldiers (who would probably prefer to have be smashing the skulls of living Armenians), with the fragments then removed by trucks, is easily found on Youtube. Azeri intolerance is so extreme that they could not allow, even in the remotest and least seen corner of their territory, the graves of Armenians dead some 500 years to survive. So I guess your “invite” to come to Azerbaijan will not include an invite to explore Nakhchivan.

  6. And to Armenian Weekly. Stop playing into the hands of propagandist by deleting their posts. The best way to stop lies and silence them for good is to examine them and properly expose them for what they are, not to just delete them.

    • Dear Steve,

      We apologize if it seemed as though we had removed a comment, it turns out that was not the case. Rather, we have a large backlog of comments at any given time, and a very small team with which to moderate them. If a comment does not appear immediately, that is why. The comment in question has since been approved. But in the future, if you don’t see a comment, it is either: 1) waiting to be approved, or 2) has been deemed unsuitable for our site. We are in the stages of preparing a “Comments Guidelines” section to our website, so you will know what constitutes an “unsuitable” comment.

      We encourage a wide range of views, conversations, and debates in our comments section—that is what it is for. We will never censor a healthy debate, but we will not tolerate racism, hate speech, or Genocide denial on our site.

      Thank you for understanding,

      Karine Vann
      Assistant Editor

    • I was replying to the comment by Akhundov (the only comment the article had at the time) – Akhundov’s post must have already been approved since it was there when I started writing the reply. By the time I had finished typing and pressed post comment, Akhundov’s comment had vanished. So it did look as if somebody had unapproved the initial approval. I gather what you are explaining is that it was just temporarily not visible while a number of newly approved comments were added. I hope being intolerant of, say genocide denial, does not always mean automatically not approving posts containing such material. Yes, genocide denial is not a real viewpoint because it is a position deliberately and knowingly constructed from lies – but lies are not exposed by deleting them.

  7. Excellent article by Casey Edgarian! And as usual, our Azerbaijani guests cannot tolerate hearing the facts about how extremely intolerant and horribly savage their country truly is.

    “Nazi German-Armenian general Njdeh Garegin…who is responsible for killing over 30,000 Jewish people during World War 2.”

    Are you kidding me? Garegin Nzhdeh was nowhere close to being a Nazi. His cooperation with Nazi Germany was due to his deep concern that a victory by Germany in World War 2, which certainly appeared to be very likely in the late 1930’s to early 1940’s, would result in a second Armenian Genocide as well as the complete destruction of Soviet Armenia. Furthermore, because of the friendly relations between Nazi Germany and Turkey, a German victory in the war would have enabled Turkey to finish off the remaining part of Armenia.

    “In order to be able to influence Nazi policy, Njdeh aligned himself with Germany and offered his services in exchange for putting an end to the anti-Armenian campaign in the German press. In cooperation with Armenian intellectuals, he presented evidence proving the Armenian people’s Indo-European (Aryan) origins, and recruited Turkish Armenians, who were familiar with the geography of the Marmara Sea Coast, to help the Germans in case of a war with Turkey. A quintessential diplomat, Njdeh wanted to make sure that regardless of the turn of events, he could either guarantee the security of Armenia in case of a possible Turkish invasion of the Caucasus or liberate Western Armenia if Germany attacked Turkey. In addition, through his ties with the Germans, he advocated for the release of more than 20,000 Armenian prisoners of war, who would have perished if not for the efforts of the General. As always, Njdeh’s main concern was the safety of the Armenian people and the advancement of its interests, and his cooperation with the Nazis was a calculated step aimed at achieving those goals. When Hitler’s armies began to lose (Stalingrad, 1943) and the Turkish-Nazi threat to the Armenians disappeared, Njdeh ended his collaboration with Germany.”

    As for the soldiers which Nzhdeh recruited to help the Germans in case of a war with Turkey, they did not kill one single Jew. As a matter of fact, those soldiers actually prevented the extermination of several thousand Jews.

    “The president Serzh Sargsyan is perpetrator of Khojaly Genocide which ended up with the massacre of 613 civilians in the same neighbor country.”

    Are you kidding me? The International Association of Genocide Scholars does not recognize any sort of thing called the “Khojaly Genocide.”

    Your claim that 613 Azerbaijani civilians were massacred in Khojali, is over four hundred more than the official count given by Human Rights Watch and Memorial Human Rights Center, which listed it at 161-200 murders. Anyway, even if we were to go along with your false figure of 613 murders, that’s still nowhere close to being a genocide. In order to qualify as a genocide, you must have the deliberate destruction of a large part of a cultural, racial, national, or religious group. Out of the entire Azerbaijani population, back in 1992, 613 murdered Azerbaijanis represents what percentage? It doesn’t even represent one percent. Therefore, the Azerbaijani government did not commit a genocide against its own people; what they committed was a massacre, and then they attempted to frame the Armenian soldiers for this particular massacre.

    Former Azerbaijani president, Ayaz Mutalibov, had stated that, “The shooting of the Khojaly residents was obviously organized by someone to take control in Azerbaijan.”

    “Tamerlan Karayev, at one time Chairman of the Supreme Council of the Azerbaijan Republic, bears witness: ‘The tragedy was committed by the authorities of Azerbaijan,’ and specifically by ‘someone highly placed.'”

    In addition to the horribly savage massacres of Armenians in Sumgait, Baku, and Kirovabad, what about the massacre of over 100 Armenian civilians in Maragha, in 1992? What about the 243 Armenian civilians who were massacred in Stepanakert by Azerbaijani artillery and rocket fire, between 1991-1992? What about the slaughter of thirty thousand Armenian civilians in Baku, by a combination of Azerbaijani and Turkish soldiers, in September of 1918? What about the slaughter of 25 thousand Armenian civilians in Shoushi, by a combination of Azerbaijani and Turkish soldiers, in May of 1920?

    It’s really amazing how enormously talented the Azerbaijanis are at massacring innocent civilians, and doing it in the most shocking, barbaric manner.

  8. Armenian weekly should be called Armenian weakly. You don’t represent Armenians. You delete one post after another to control the narrative. I consider you useless to the Armenian Nation and cause. Traitor!

    • Hi Joe,

      Thanks for your comment. Like every major newspaper in the United States, the Armenian Weekly moderates the comments sections on its articles. This is not to “control the narrative,” but to keep readers’ comments focused on the actual content of the article. Our comments section should be places where thoughtful, intelligent discussion and healthy debate takes place, but without moderation, it’s at risk of disintegrating into a volley of vulgar insults and racist diatribe, which serves no one. This is why we moderate.

      We are in the process of publishing a set of guidelines, so our readers can know ahead of time what constitutes a comment that is “unsuitable” for publishing on our site.

      Thanks for your patience,

      Karine Vann
      Assistant Editor

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