The Twitter account for Caucasus Heritage Watch on April 19 shared satellite images apparently showing several vehicles parked next to the Vankasar Church in Azerbaijan’s Agdam district. The region was recaptured from Armenian forces during last year's conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.
The images are hard to discern but were widely shared on Twitter amid fears they may show a first step in the “erasure” of the ancient Christian monument.
Lori Khatchadourian, an associate professor at Cornell University who is one of the researchers of Caucasus Heritage Watch, told RFE/RL by e-mail that there appears to be one truck “approximately 8.6 meters long” -- far larger than a regular car, truck, or van -- in the photo, alongside other undefined vehicles and “a temporary rectangular structure” nearby measuring 18-by-8 meters that she believes may be a tent or some other type of shelter.
There is no evidence Vankasar Church has been targeted for destruction since coming under Azerbaijan's control, but some fear it could be demolished after a recent news report highlighted the erasure of another church on recaptured Azerbaijani territory.
In March, a BBC camera crew went looking for a church in the retaken Azerbaijani town of Jebrayil. The small church, which was built in 2017, became known during the 2020 conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenian forces after video emerged of a fighter standing atop its damaged cross and shouting Islamic slogans.
Instead of a church, the BBC journalists found smoothed-out rubble at the site.
In response to the church’s destruction, senior Azerbaijani official Hikmet Hajiyev pointed to the heavily damaged Azerbaijani towns that he said had become wastelands under Armenian occupation since the first conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh ended in 1994.
Simon Maghakyan, an American-Armenian researcher, told RFE/RL he hopes the objects seen in the satellite imagery alongside Vankasar Church are simply military vehicles manning an outpost. But a recent statement about the nearby archaeological site of Tigranakert by Azerbaijani officials has him worried for the wider site around Vankasar Church.
On March 13, Hajiyev, who is an adviser to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, tweeted cryptically that the “falsified mythic story” about Tigranakert “is over.” The Tigranakert ruins are less than 2 kilometers from Vankasar Church and were damaged during the 2020 conflict.
Armenians also remember the total destruction in 2005 of the special Armenian "khachkar" tombstones at the cemetery in Julfa, Azerbaijan.
Khatchadourian says of the images her organization released on April 19: “Our hope is that there is no risk at all and the vehicles are merely passing by. But deterrence only works if we make potential threats visible to the wider public and to responsible authorities in order to seek clarification. Unlike most research teams, we are most pleased when we are wrong.”
RFE/RL contacted UNESCO for comment about the images but did not receive a response at the time of publication.
UPDATE: On April 22, UNESCO responded to RFE/RL's April 20 request for comment by pointing to the following statement:
"UNESCO continues its discussions for the dispatch of a mission for the protection of cultural property in and around the Nagorno-Karabakh region, in the framework of the 1954 convention for the protection of cultural heritage in the event of armed conflict and its two protocols, in a spirit of consensus and strict impartiality."