An appeal by Catholicos Garegin II, Armenia’s religious leader, to President Serzh Sargsyan to hand over to Azerbaijan the body of an Azerbaijani soldier killed in a frontline shootout this summer has set off a church-state debate in Yerevan.
Garegin II met with President Sargsyan on September 27 to discuss the repatriation of 22-year-old Azerbaijani Warrant Officer Mubariz Ibrahimov’s body. Ibrahimov was killed on June 19 amid a controversial shootout along the frontline between Azerbaijani and Armenian and Karabakhi forces. Four Armenian soldiers also died in the firefight.
The Azerbaijani government has attributed the deaths of four Armenian soldiers to Ibrahimov, and posthumously granted him the title of National Hero. A documentary film about his short life was broadcast in Baku in mid-September. That attention has not helped efforts to return Ibrahimov’s body. In Armenia, he is generally vilified, widely labeled a “saboteur,” and, by some, a “criminal.” The June shootout in which Ibrahimov took part also roused alarm among many Armenians that Azerbaijan might be hatching plans to use force to try and regain control over the breakaway Karabakh territory.
The Armenian Apostolic Church has stated that Garegin II decided to intervene in the matter after receiving a request from Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kiril I who reportedly was acting on behalf of Sheikh-ul-Islam Pashazade, the Baku-based head of the semi-official Caucasus Muslim Board. Garegin II reportedly told the Russian patriarch that Armenia has always been “ready to consider such appeals if Azerbaijan also demonstrates a willingness to consider the above-mentioned issue through restoring productive cooperation, in line with the requirements of international humanitarian law.”
President Sargsyan has not indicated whether or not he plans to meet the Catholicos’ request; the presidential office referred journalists to Garegin II’s aforementioned appeal for its position.
The reasons why the church leader decided to intervene remain unclear to many. Stating that he had no wish to be drawn into politics, Garegin II declined to mediate between the government and opposition during the crisis that followed the fatal 2008 clashes between opposition protestors and police. The spiritual leader’s reluctance to get involved then still angers opposition leaders, who charged that Garegin II has undermined confidence in the Church by serving as a government cheerleader.
Opposition activist Karapet Rubinian, a former member of the Armenian National Movement that appealed to Garegin II to help secure the release of more than a dozen jailed opposition members, was chagrined by the Catholicos’ decision. “He honors the request of the Russian Patriarch, but cannot get involved in politics for the sake of his own flock?” asked Rubinian.
In response to such criticism, the Armenian Apostolic Church’s press service released a statement that Garegin II “only conveyed the request of the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia.”
The Ministries of Defense and Foreign Affairs declined to comment about Garegin II’s request.
The appeal is not the first time the Catholicos has demonstrated an interest in facilitating a dialogue with Azerbaijan. In April, he held a meeting in Baku with Sheikh-ul-Islam Pashazade, facilitated by Russian Patriarch Kiril I on the sidelines of the World Interfaith Summit.
Some political analysts and politicians think that the Catholicos chose the wrong person for his petition about Ibrahimov. Rather than Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, Garegin II should have appealed to the de facto leader of Karabakh, Bakho Sahakian, they argue. Ibrahimov was killed near the village of Chaylu (Çaylı in Azeri) on the Karabakh frontline. “The Armenian side must at least realize that in this matter not Armenia’s officials, but Nagorno-Karabakh’s authorities should be addressed,” said Stepan Safarian, parliamentary faction leader of the opposition Heritage Party, one of Armenia’s more outspoken parties on Karabakh policy. “For now, this is being forgotten.”
Political scientist Armen Badalian argues that the Catholicos’ appeal to Sargsyan shows that Garegin II believes there are only two parties in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict -- namely, Azerbaijan and Armenia.
De facto officials in Stepanakert, the disputed region’s capital, say they should have a role in the dispute over Ibrahimov’s remains. “The body of the Azerbaijani soldier is on neutral territory, near Karabakh-controlled regions,” David Babaian, a spokesperson for Sahakian, asserted to the Armenian news site MediaLab.am. “Therefore, if the Azerbaijani side wants to get this soldier’s body back, it should address NKR [Nagorno-Karabakh Republic] authorities. Otherwise, there is nothing to talk about.” [Editor’s Note: MediaLab receives funding from the Open Society Institute-Assistance Foundation Armenia, part of the Soros foundations network. EurasiaNet.org operates under the auspices of the Open Society Institute, another entity in the Soros network].
Azerbaijan in the past has refused all official contact with the disputed territory’s government.
Marianna Grigoryan is a Yerevan-based freelance reporter and the editor of MediaLab.am.