When a Christian people in this predominantly Muslim republic ground away the Armenian inscriptions from the walls of a church and tombs last month to erase evidence linking them to Azerbaijan‘s foe, they thought they had the interests of their small community in mind.
A village elder inspects a tomb
But now the tiny Christian church in the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan has become the focus of a big scandal as the Udi minority struggles to find its identity in an ideological minefield.
The church, which has not been used since Azerbaijan became part of the Soviet Union, has become the center of a dispute between the Norwegian backers of the reconstruction, who consider the alterations to be vandalism, and the Udi community.
“We have no God, our people lost their religion under communism and this church is our only hope of reviving it,” said Georgi Kechaari, one of the village elders who doubles as the ethnic group’s historian.
“But we live in Azerbaijan, and when people came into the church and saw Armenian letters, they automatically associated us with Armenians,” he said.
The Udi, who once used the Armenian alphabet, have struggled to separate their legacy from that of their fellow Christians, the Armenians, who fought a war with Azerbaijan and have been vilified here.
Erupting just before the break-up of the Soviet Union, the war cost both countries tens of thousands of lives but Azerbaijan lost Nagorno-Karabakh – an ethnic Armenian enclave – and seven other surrounding regions which have been under Armenian control since the two countries signed an uneasy ceasefire agreement in 1994.
Armenian-sounding city names have been changed, streets named after Armenians have been replaced with politically correct Azeri surnames, while Soviet history glorifying Armenian communist activists has been rewritten in school textbooks.
But the white-stone church in Nij, some two centuries old, had not been tampered with until the Udi undertook to reconstruct it with help from the state financed Norwegian Humanitarian Enterprise (NHE).
“It was a beautiful inscription, 200 years old, it even survived the war,” Norway’s Ambassador to Azerbaijan Steinar Gil told AFP. “This is an act of vandalism and Norway in no way wants to be associated with it.”
But the Udis insist they erased the inscriptions to right a historic wrong.
Kechaari alleged that the Armenian inscriptions, which stated that the Church was built in 1823, were fakes put there by Armenians in the 1920s so that they could make historical claims to it.
The Udis are the last surviving tribe of the Caucasus Albanians, a group unrelated to the Mediterranean Albanians, whose Christian kingdom ruled this region in medieval times before Turkic hordes swept in from Central Asia in the 13th and 15th centuries.
They number under 10,000 people and Nij is the only predominantly Udi village to survive to this day, and although they call themselves Christian, there is little that Christians from other parts of the world would find in common with them.
The Udis have not had a pastor for nearly a century and celebrate Islamic holidays together with their Muslim neighbors.
But while the Udis soul search for an identity, Azerbaijan has used their legacy to strengthen its claims to Karabakh.
Armenians argue that the multitude of churches in the occupied region proves that they as a Christian people can lay a historic claim to it. But Azeris, who consider themselves to be the descendants of Albanians who were assimilated into a Turkic group, say the area is rightfully theirs because the churches were actually built by their ancestors the Albanians.
To the Udi, who used Armenian script when their church was built, toeing the official Azeri line has become more of a priority than historical accuracy.
The perception that they are one with the Armenians has meant that there has been little trust from the authorites; Udi men for example were only allowed to start serving in the Azeri Army two years ago.
But their use of power tools to fit the status quo took their Norwegian sponsors by surprise.
“They think they have erased a reminder of being Armenian … instead they have taken away the chance to have a good image when the church is inaugurated,” the director of the NHE in Azerbaijan, Alf Henry Rasmussen said, adding that a visit to the church by Norway’s prime minister will probably now be cancelled.
“Everyone will stare at the missing stones, I’m not quite sure if we can continue our work there,” Rasmussen said.