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‘I don’t want to say goodbye’: Armenian monastery guarded by military set to pass to Azerbaijan

The Cathedral Church at the Dadivank monastery is packed.

The Armenian chant, or sharakan, used during Holy Mass sounds especially melancholy this Sunday – a beautiful tenor voice filling the small domed space as members of the congregation wipe away tears.

Perhaps they have lost loved ones in this war. Perhaps they grieve their nation’s defeat.

Perhaps it is grief that this holy place for Armenian Christians will pass into Azerbaijani hands on Wednesday.

This is the last Sunday when the medieval monastic complex at Dadivank remains de facto theirs.

“It is our heritage and we should look after and protect it,” says Sona Khachaturyan who has come to visit from the Armenian capital, Yerevan.

“Unfortunately it will become part of Azerbaijan. It’s painful but I don’t want to say goodbye because I’m sure I’ll be back.”

The Russian tricolour flag flies at the entrance to the monastery complex.

A Russian tank sits in the courtyard, barrel pointing at the oncoming traffic.

Azerbaijan has promised that Armenian Christians will be provided with continued access to Dadivank and other religious sites in territories that will soon be theirs.

The Russians are here to make sure they keep their word.

“Azerbaijanis are not Turks but they behave like them,” says Father Shmavan, who came from Yerevan to help officiate the service.

“The Ottoman Turks promised that everything would be okay but when the Young Turks came to power they started the Armenian genocide.

“There were a lot of promises made by the Aliyev dynasty starting with Heydar and finishing with Ilham Aliyev, but they don’t keep their promises.”

The deportation and mass killing of around 1.5 million ethnic Armenians as the Ottoman Empire collapsed is a wound which will never heal for Armenians and the huge Armenian diaspora.

It was the bogeyman in Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s wartime rhetoric.

Turkey and Azerbaijan are the only two states which still refuse to recognise the genocide.

No wonder Father Shmavan has little faith in their promises.

Now the fear and the language of cultural genocide is reappearing.

Much of Armenia’s cultural heritage was destroyed when Western Armenia was absorbed into Turkey in the first part of the 20th century.

With the territorial losses incurred as a result of this war, Armenia is squeezed again.

These ancient sites though are impressive for their resilience. During Soviet times when Kalbajar was in Azerbaijani hands, locals kept their cattle in the Dadivank monastery.

The layer of soot from the fires they burnt helped preserve the 12th century frescoes underneath which were only revealed during renovations in the early 1990s.

We decide to visit the 4th century monastery complex at Amaras.

It is still under Armenian control but is situated in the south eastern corner of Nagorno-Karabakh where Azerbaijan has recaptured a lot of territory. It is isolated and precarious.

The little white church at its centre is surrounded by thick, fortified walls. When Eastern Armenia was under Russian control in the 19th century, Amaras was a frontier fortress.

Now again it is a militarised zone. The Azerbaijani positions are three kilometres away, at the top of the hill on the horizon.

The Russian flag flies over the ramparts but an Armenian unit is stationed here for now. The entrance is through a hole in the wall.

The soldiers have barbecued a pig and invite us to eat with them inside the fortified walls. There is no electricity so we eat by the light of our mobile phones.

“It is surprising that you see me eating at a table because all my friends are still in the trenches,” says Artak Hovhannesyan.

“If you stand at this monastery and look right, left and behind the trenches are still full.”

The Russian peacekeepers have an initial mandate of five years but that will most likely be extended.

Despite their presence, both sides will need to keep their trenches manned. As this conflict re-freezes, this kind of military effort is needed to maintain the new status quo.

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Cyber security chiefs say 2020 election was ‘most secure in American history’

President Trump’s claims of election rigging and voter fraud have been denied by his own cyber security agency, which called this year’s vote ‘the most secure in American history’.

The Election Infrastructure Government Co-ordinating Council (GCC), part of the Department of Homeland Security, added in a statement: ‘There is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised.

‘While we know there are many unfounded claims and opportunities for misinformation about the process of our elections, we can assure you we have the upmost confidence in the security and integrity of our elections, and you should too.’

Despite Joe Biden’s victory becoming even clearer after the states of Georgia and Arizona were projected for him, Mr Trump has remained steadfast in his refusal to concede the election and has instead continued to push baseless allegations that it was interfered with.

Responding to Thursday’s statement, he said that Democrats have complained for years about unsafe elections but ‘Now they are saying what a wonderful job the Trump Administration did in making 2020 the most secure election ever’.

He added on Twitter: ‘Actually this is true, except for what the Democrats did. Rigged Election!’

Like many of his tweets since polls closed, Twitter attached a warning saying the ‘claim about election fraud is disputed’.

However, in only his second appearance since his defeat to the former vice president, Mr Trump sounded doubtful about his prospects of seeing out a second term, telling reporters ‘time will tell’ who occupies the White House come January 20.

Speaking yesterday at a press conference in the Rose Garden updating the public on his coronavirus vaccine drive, Operation Warp Speed, he said: ‘This administration will not be going to a lockdown.

‘Hopefully the, uh, whatever happens in the future – who knows which administration it will be? I guess time will tell.’

He declined to answer any questions following the presentation.

In their joint statement on Thursday, top government cyber security and election officials insisted there was ‘no evidence’ any voting system was compromised.

The statement’s authors include the presidents of the National Association of State Election Directors and the National Association of Secretaries of State – who run elections at the state level – and the executive committee of the government-industry coordinating council that includes all the major voting equipment vendors.

It came just hours after Reuters reported the agency’s director told associates he expects to be fired.

Christopher Krebs has drawn Trump’s ire over a CISA website named ‘Rumor Control’ that has debunked false claims about the election.

He has been vocal on Twitter in repeatedly reassuring Americans that the election was secure and that their votes would be counted.

As of Friday, most top Republicans were still supporting Mr Trump’s efforts to challenge the election process and results. But cracks were beginning to emerge in that support.

A number of GOP leaders were saying it was time for the White House to begin briefing Mr Biden on the latest intelligence reports so he will be prepared when he takes over on January 20.

Others added it was time to treat Mr Biden like the president-elect he is.

New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu, who endorsed Mr Trump’s re-election, became the latest Republican official to say what Trump and his allies refuse to accept.

He acknowledged that Mr Biden’s lead was getting ‘bigger and bigger by the day’ and Mr Trump’s legal options were dissipating, telling reporters: ‘Joe Biden is the president-elect, and I think like most Americans, we suspect he’ll be taking the oath of office in January.

Mr Sununu insisted there was no fraud in his state, which Mr Biden easily carried.

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