The restoration of the church is now in doubt
The restoration of a centuries-old Christian church in predominantly Muslim Azerbaijan is hanging in the balance amid a row over wall inscriptions.
The local Udi people, a Christian community, removed lettering they say was put there by Armenian Christians.
The white-stone building in the northern mountain village of Nij is undergoing renovation with funding from a Norwegian charity, the Norwegian Humanitarian Enterprise, but the organisation is unhappy about the alterations.
The Udis say they erased the inscriptions over the entrance to the church and next to the altar to right a historic wrong.
Armenians, they contend, put the lettering there long after the church was built so they could lay claim to it.
"If those fake inscriptions are not erased, the renovation will lose its importance," the head of the Udi community told Azerbaijan's ANS TV.
The Udis, who number around 8,000, are keen to distance themselves from Azerbaijan's arch-foe, Armenia.
"We live in Azerbaijan, and when people came into the church and saw Armenian letters, they automatically associated us with Armenians," one of the village elders told the AFP news agency.
The Udis have struggled to separate their heritage from that of their fellow Christian Armenians, who fought a war with Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region in 1988-1994.
The Armenians argue that churches with this type of inscription are an indication of their long roots in the region.
The Norwegians view the erasing of the inscriptions as "tantamount to vandalism", the Azeri newspaper 525 Qazet reported.
The Norwegian ambassador to Azerbaijan, Steinar Gil, said politics should not play a role.
"Any historical monument should be protected. One should take care of historical monuments despite political relations," he said.
"I visited that village in November last year and saw the Armenian inscriptions. I regret that they have been erased... This was a chance for Azerbaijan to set an example to the whole world."
And the head of the Norwegian Humanitarian Office in Azerbaijan, Alf Henry Rasmussen, told the BBC that the organisation was now reconsidering the whole restoration project.
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