Azerbaijan International

Autumn 2002 (10.3)
Page 22-23

Udins - Early Christians of Azerbaijan Greet the Pope

Left: Zurab Kananchef presents the Pope with an ornate Udin wooden cross. Udins believe they are descended from the first Christians in the Caucasus and date back to the early centuries AD.

During the Pope's visit to Baku in May, the Udins of Azerbaijan presented him with a wooden cross, a symbol of their struggle to maintain their Christian heritage throughout the centuries, up through the end of Soviet rule in the region.

There are approximately 8,000 Udins throughout the world; 5,000 of them live in Azerbaijan-in Baku, the Nij village in the Gabala region and in the center of the Oghuz region. Other significant Udin communities are in Georgia. The Udins speak a language of their own and represent the remnant of a very early Christian community in Azerbaijan that traces its roots back to the 4th century Caucasus Albanian Church [Don't confuse Caucasus Albania with the Balkan country known as Albania].

Over the centuries, the Udins have been equated with Armenians but, in reality, they are one of the distinct ethnic groups that made up part of Caucasian Albania. The Udins and Albanians once had their own catholicos, congregations and church buildings in Nagorno-Karabakh. Then, in 1836, Russian Czar Nicholas I made a political decision to dissolve the Albanian church, stripping it of its ecclesiastical hierarchy and turning over its places of worship to the Armenian Gregorian Church. From then onward, Mass was conducted in Armenian and the architecture of the churches was modified to reflect Armenian beliefs relating to the nature of Christ (See Kish Church, AI 8.4)

Left: The older of two Udin churches in Nij village, Gabala Region.

These days, Udins are seeking to recover their unique history. For this reason, Zurab Kananchef, a master's student in history and founder of the Research Center of Caucasian Albania, presented an Albanian cross to the Pope. "The cross was a symbol of our survival and our struggle to hold onto our traditions and culture even 160 years after they were taken from us," Zurab said. "The Pope's visit gave us a chance to introduce our history to millions of Catholics throughout the world. His acknowledgement of our cross meant more than words can express. It was a gesture of good will and the recognition of a small nation and the culmination of a long process to introduce the Catholic church to our very ancient Christian community.

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