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Azerbaijani leader: Christian churches will be protected

The president of Azerbaijan is promising that Christian churches will be protected when the strongly Muslim country takes possession of areas formerly controlled by Armenians.

President Ilham Aliyev’s office said he made the promise in a telephone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is deploying peacekeeping forces in the areas under an agreement that ended six weeks of fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

Ethnic Armenian forces had controlled Nagorno-Karabakh and sizeable adjacent territories since the 1994 end of a separatist war. Fighting resumed in late September and ended with an agreement that calls for Azerbaijan to regain control of the outlying territories as well as allowing it to hold on to parts of Nagorno-Karabakh that it seized during the fighting.

Sirarpi Safaryan, foreground, a relative of Garo Dadevusyan, sits near her house in Kalbajar before leaving the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, on Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020. The village is to be turned over to Azerbaijan on Sunday as part of territorial concessions in an agreement to end six weeks of intense fighting with Armenian forces. Hundreds of thousands of Azeris were displaced by the war that ended in 1994. It is unclear when any civilians might try to settle in Karvachar — which will now be known by its Azeri name Kalbajar — or elsewhere. (AP PhotoDmitry Lovetsky)

The first of the territories, Kalbajar, is being turned over on Sunday.

Kalbajar is home to the well-known Dadivank monastery of the Armenian Apostolic Church. A day before the territory’s handover, workers removed many of the monastery’s sacred objects. Other residents in Kalbajar torched their own homes, fearing what will happen when Azerbaijani forces take over.

Azerbaijan is about 95% Muslim and Armenians fear that churches would be damaged or closed when it takes control of the territories.

Smoke rises from a burning house as cars and trucks stuck in a huge traffic jam climbing along the road from Kalbajar leaving the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, on Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020. The territory is to be turned over to Azerbaijan on Sunday as part of territorial concessions in an agreement to end six weeks of intense fighting with Armenian forces. Hundreds of thousands of Azeris were displaced by the war that ended in 1994. It is unclear when any civilians might try to settle in Karvachar — which will now be known by its Azeri name Kalbajar — or elsewhere. (AP PhotoDmitry Lovetsky)

"President Aliyev said that Christian churches in Azerbaijani territories, which are returned to Azerbaijan in accordance with the trilateral statement, will also be properly protected by the state. Christians of Azerbaijan will have access to these churches,” said the statement from his office.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of combatants and civilians have been killed since fighting flared anew in late September.

A woman lights candles inside a church of the Dadivank, an Armenian Apostolic Church monastery dating to the 9th century, as ethnic Armenians leave the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020. The territory is to be turned over to Azerbaijan on Sunday as part of territorial concessions in an agreement to end six weeks of intense fighting with Armenian forces. Hundreds of thousands of Azeris were displaced by the war that ended in 1994. It is unclear when any civilians might try to settle in Karvachar — which will now be known by its Azeri name Kalbajar — or elsewhere. (AP PhotoDmitry Lovetsky)

Cars and trucks stuck in a huge traffic jam climbing along the road from Kalbajar to a mountain pass leaving the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, on Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020. The territory is to be turned over to Azerbaijan on Sunday as part of territorial concessions in an agreement to end six weeks of intense fighting with Armenian forces. Hundreds of thousands of Azeris were displaced by the war that ended in 1994. It is unclear when any civilians might try to settle in Karvachar — which will now be known by its Azeri name Kalbajar — or elsewhere. (AP PhotoDmitry Lovetsky)

A man removes lamps inside a church of the Dadivank, an Armenian Apostolic Church monastery dating to the 9th century, as ethnic Armenians leave the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020. The territory is to be turned over to Azerbaijan on Sunday as part of territorial concessions in an agreement to end six weeks of intense fighting with Armenian forces. Hundreds of thousands of Azeris were displaced by the war that ended in 1994. It is unclear when any civilians might try to settle in Karvachar — which will now be known by its Azeri name Kalbajar — or elsewhere. (AP PhotoDmitry Lovetsky)

A woman holds her baby covered with her coat next to an icon at the Dadivank, an Armenian Apostolic Church monastery dating to the 9th century, as ethnic Armenians leave the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020. The territory is to be turned over to Azerbaijan on Sunday as part of territorial concessions in an agreement to end six weeks of intense fighting with Armenian forces. Hundreds of thousands of Azeris were displaced by the war that ended in 1994. It is unclear when any civilians might try to settle in Karvachar — which will now be known by its Azeri name Kalbajar — or elsewhere. (AP PhotoDmitry Lovetsky)

People shows a Kalashnikov gun to a boy at the Dadivank, an Armenian Apostolic Church monastery dating to the 9th century, as ethnic Armenians leave the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020. The territory is to be turned over to Azerbaijan on Sunday as part of territorial concessions in an agreement to end six weeks of intense fighting with Armenian forces. Hundreds of thousands of Azeris were displaced by the war that ended in 1994. It is unclear when any civilians might try to settle in Karvachar — which will now be known by its Azeri name Kalbajar — or elsewhere. (AP PhotoDmitry Lovetsky)

People look at bells, removed form the Dadivank, an Armenian Apostolic Church monastery dating to the 9th century, as ethnic Armenians leave the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020. The territory is to be turned over to Azerbaijan on Sunday as part of territorial concessions in an agreement to end six weeks of intense fighting with Armenian forces. Hundreds of thousands of Azeris were displaced by the war that ended in 1994. It is unclear when any civilians might try to settle in Karvachar — which will now be known by its Azeri name Kalbajar — or elsewhere. (AP PhotoDmitry Lovetsky)