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U.S. Envoy Barred From Armenian Cemetery In Azerbaijan

U.S. Ambassador Matthew Bryza (file photo)
U.S. Ambassador Matthew Bryza (file photo)
U.S. officials say Azerbaijani authorities have refused to allow U.S. Ambassador Matthew Bryza to visit an ancient Armenian cemetery in Azerbaijan that was reportedly destroyed in 2005.

The cemetery, which once had thousands of intricately carved Armenian cross gravestones, or khachkars, is located near Djulfa, a town in the Azerbaijani exclave of Naxcivan.

Videos that emerged in late 2005 purportedly showed Azerbaijani troops attacking the UNESCO-protected gravestones. They elicited condemnation from the European Parliament and other bodies.

The Azerbaijani government denied their destruction at the time.

Still, a 2006 report by the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) confirmed that the cemetery has vanished. The IWPR said its journalist was near enough to see that the cemetery no longer exists.

In a statement posted on its website, the U.S. Embassy in Azerbaijan said Bryza tried to travel to Djulfa during a two-day visit to Naxcivan that ended on April 21.

"The ambassador's request to visit Djulfa was denied," the embassy said. "But authorities in [Naxcivan] did discuss the Djulfa Khachkars in detail with Ambassador Bryza and pledged to work with him to facilitate a visit to the Djulfa cemetery in the coming months."

"As I pledged to do in Washington before arriving as ambassador, I traveled to [Naxcivan] to investigate what happened in Djulfa," Bryza was quoted as saying. "As I said at the time the cemetery destruction was reported, the desecration of cultural sites -- especially a cemetery -- is a tragedy, which we deplore, regardless of where it happens."

Bryza cited the "immense human importance...which transcends all political, cultural and religious differences," of preserving such cultural and religious monuments.

Bryza served as U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state from 2005-09. His alleged failure to "meaningfully respond" to the destruction of Djulfa's cemetery was among the concerns expressed by the Armenian National Committee Of America during last year's congressional hearings on his nomination for the post of U.S. ambassador in Baku.

Those concerns were echoed by two U.S. senators who blocked the congressional endorsement of Bryza's candidacy. They pressed Bryza on why he waited three months to condemn the reported desecration.

Bryza told them in July that he needed time to look into those reports.

"I asked our embassy to investigate what had happened, and as that information came in and it became clear to me what had happened, then, absolutely, I publicly issued that condemnation," he said.