'Genocide' Warning: As Armenian Christians Face Potential Horror, Nagorno-Karabakh Official Speaks Out
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Chaos is once again brewing over Nagorno-Karabakh, a small, landlocked region between Armenia and Azerbaijan. This area, also known as Artsakh and comprised chiefly of Armenian Christians, has been disputed for decades.
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But experts are sounding the alarm, as the typical chaos plaguing the area has recently escalated.
Azerbaijani residents reportedly blocked the Lachin corridor Dec. 12, the only land passage into Nagorno-Karabakh, cutting off food, medical supplies, and travel between the area and Armenia.
That blockade is now approaching its second week, with desperation increasing.
A Truly Dire Situation
The situation is so dire a group of human rights organizations issued a genocide warning Monday, cautioning how deadly and diabolical the situation could become.
“The current Azerbaijani aggression against the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh conforms to a long pattern of ethnic and religious cleansing of Armenian and other Christian communities in the region by the government of Azerbaijan, the Republic of Turkey, the Ottoman Empire, and their partisans,” the warning reads, in part.
The blockade is the clear catalyst for the increased alarm. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry placed blame for the closure on Russian peacekeepers who are responsible for the area under a 2020 peace agreement.
Part of that treaty called for Azerbaijan to ensure the safe passage of materials along that road, which is purportedly no longer happening.
The blockade is sparking a crisis Ruben Vardanyan, minister of state for Nagorno-Karabakh, is hoping to see remedied as quickly as possible, as his citizens do not have access to travel or much-needed resources.
“They block[ed] the road … without any negotiation with us,” Vardanyan told CBN’s Faithwire Friday.
Watch Vardanyan explain what’s happening on the ground:
The individuals responsible for the blockade have said they are environmental activists upset with actions being taken in Nagorno-Karabakh, though the Armenian government has speculated Azerbaijan is funding the individuals’ efforts and fueling the resulting chaos.
The blockade comes as Azerbaijan has accused Armenia of illegal mining in Nagorno-Karabakh and of placing landmines that have killed 45 people over the past two years, according to Reuters.
Vardanyan declined to speculate on the identity of those protesting but explained the blockade’s impact on residents. In addition to losing access to resources and travel, natural gas was initially shut off “without explanation.”
While access to this energy source has returned, residents are facing ongoing supply issues due to intentional limitations and efforts to conserve resources.
“It’s tough, because it’s winter and without gas and with the limited access to food …. we have already put some limitation for people,” Vardanyan said. “We don’t know how long it can continue. … We have a reserve, we prepared some reserve, but, because it was unclear how long it can go, we said, ‘Let’s put, from the beginning, some limits.'”
The People’s Resolve
Despite the harrowing ordeal for the 120,000 residents of Nagorno-Karabakh, Vardanyan said his people have a strong resolve and a “very strong character.”
He believes the constraints being placed on the people there have made them more unified.
“[They have] become more unified and closer to each other,” he said. “And I think it was really amazing to see how people, despite all these problems, really found themselves that they are better to live together and to try to fight against these problems.”
An Ongoing Quest For Independence
Vardanyan also discussed the region’s Armenian roots and the ongoing quest for independence in Nagorno-Karabakh.
“Despite the political system, whatever happened in the past, in the 20th century, 90% of people [who were] living here [were] Armenian,” he said. “And this is very important to understand.”
Vardanyan continued, “Armenia has a right to keep their own language, their own culture, their own religion. Thirty-four years ago, we got [to] start the fight for independence, and it’s continuing with people who live here. They don’t want to be part of any other country.”
Rather than a religious conflict as some might assume, he said the battle between Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan is a fight between a democratic country and a non-democratic and autocratic nation.
“In Azerbaijan, everybody knows they don’t have a democratic system, and we all know … they don’t have … human rights,” Vardanyan said, differentiating between the democratic ideals embraced by Nagorno-Karabakh and the restrictive governmental system in Azerbaijan.
Previous Altercations Fueling the Crisis
The current crisis comes after relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan also hit a significant roadblock this past September.
Joel Veldkamp, head of international communications at persecution watchdog Christian Solidarity International (CSI), told CBN’s Faithwire about the Sept. 13 event, its implications, and the complex history between the two nations.
Veldkamp, who has repeatedly told CBN in past interviews of his concern about an Azerbaijani invasion of Nagorno-Karabakh, noted the Sept. 13 event was pervasive and troubling, as it extended beyond disputed territory.
“What was really shocking about this attack was that Azerbaijan was attacking the sovereign internationally recognized nation of Armenia itself,” he said. “For 48 hours straight, bombs fell on the country without stopping. … Seven thousand people fled for their lives, hundreds of soldiers were killed, and we just didn’t know what was going to happen.”
Horrific videos spread on social media exposing the attacks, with one clip allegedly showing Azerbaijani soldiers “desecrating the dead body of an Armenian woman soldier,” Veldkamp said.
Considering the strength of Azerbaijan in comparison to the more meager condition of Armenian resources, Veldkamp and others feared Armenia could have been entirely conquered by Azerbaijan.
“It was a really terrifying moment,” he said. “After 48 hours, a ceasefire was imposed apparently with the mediation of the United States, but the situation remains extremely tense.”
The latest blockade only ups the ante on those fears. Watch Veldkamp explain the September event in detail:
The Associated Press reported both sides of the September dispute were blaming one another for the chaos:
The fighting erupted minutes after midnight with Azerbaijani forces unleashing an artillery barrage and drone attacks in many sections of Armenian territory, according to Armenia’s Defense Ministry. It said shelling grew less intense during the day but Azerbaijani troops were trying to advance into Armenian territory.
Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry said it was responding to a “large-scale provocation” by Armenia late Monday and early Tuesday. It said Armenian troops planted mines and fired on Azerbaijani military positions.
As Vardanyan and Veldkamp noted, the history runs deep.
Why Have Azerbaijan and Armenia Been Clashing?
Veldkamp said the roots of the dispute are “long and complicated,” explaining that “Azerbaijani national identity has been formed in opposition to Armenia.”
Fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh exacerbates that tumultuous relationship.
In a way, he said, both nations are making claims on the same land. And mirroring Vardanyan, he said Armenia is a democracy, while Azerbaijan is “one of the most repressive dictatorships in the world.”
“Dictators tend to look for enemies [to] rally the people around,” Veldkamp said. “So, under the current government, Azerbaijan has really made hatred of Armenians into a unifying national ideology.”
He said there are museums in Azerbaijan that show Armenians with large noses and strange features, as well as “state propaganda” making it appear as though Armenians are harming Azerbaijanis.
Veldkamp said the impact of this campaign creates violence when Azerbaijanis encounter people from Armenia. Beyond these elements, Russia’s fledgling efforts in Ukraine are one of the other reasons he and others believe Azerbaijan is now intensifying assaults on Armenia.
“Traditionally, Russia has been the only power that can really restrain Azerbaijan and Turkey in the region,” Veldkamp said. “But now, Russia’s tied down.”
Those distractions might be sparking Azerbaijan’s efforts in the territory, particularly in the ongoing power dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh.
A Nation Born Out of Genocide
It’s perhaps also important to go back further to understand the past 100 years of disorder in the area. One must begin with a tragic fact: Armenia is very much a nation born out of genocide.
The Armenian Genocide unfolded during World War I and led to Turkey killing 1.5 million Armenians. Turkey, which has historically denied this genocide occurred, has been accused of helping Azerbaijan in the current conflict, adding extra layers to the disarray.
“Before World War I, the country that we know of as Turkey today was controlled by the last Islamic empire. It was called the Ottoman Empire,” Veldkamp explained. “About a fifth of the population was Christian and most of them were Armenians, but when World War I started, the rulers of the Ottoman Empire decided that these Christians were a security threat and they decided to liquidate them.”
Starting in 1915, more than a million Armenians were slaughtered, with many more forced from their homes or deported.
“The vast majority of what Armenians would consider to be their homeland was lost to them forever and all they were able to hold on to was this tiny little sliver of land that we know of today as the republic of Armenia,” Veldkamp said. “[It] has Turkey on one side of it and on the other side of it [is] Azerbaijan.”
But that wasn’t the end of Armenia’s plight. After the genocide, the Soviet Union conquered Armenia and forced the nation into its borders. This, too, led to pain, suffering, and persecution.
“For 70 years, Christians were severely persecuted, churches were closed, priests were sent to the gulag, and the country suffered just a great deal under Russian rule,” Veldkamp said.
In 1991, Armenia once again became free, though current struggles persist.
Breaking Down More on Nagorno-Karabakh
Some of the contemporary roots in the Nagorno-Karabakh stalemate took form from the late 1980s through 1994, with war breaking out between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the land.
“It’s kind of on this land bridge between Iran, Turkey, and Russia,” Veldkamp said in a previous interview. “[It’s] a very complicated part of the world.”
The Soviets first established the region in the 1920s, according to The Washington Post.
Decades later, in 1988, the people of Nagorno-Karabakh, who are 95% ethnically Armenian, reportedly decided to become part of Armenia, considering they shared a common language and religion.
“In 1988, the Nagorno-Karabakh legislature passed a resolution to join Armenia despite the region’s legal location within Azerbaijan’s borders,” the Council on Foreign Relations wrote. “As the Soviet Union was dissolving in 1991, the autonomous region officially declared independence.”
This attempt at leaving the Soviet nation of Azerbaijan for Armenia, then another Soviet country, sparked decades of conflict and anger. According to Veldkamp, Azerbaijan has been “trying to wipe these people out essentially,” with deadly clashes leading to monumental losses.
Azerbaijan essentially lost, and Nagorno-Karabakh became a de facto independent state. For years, the situation persisted along those same lines, with occasional issues flaring and without real resolution.
But then the crisis more deeply devolved in 2020.
“In 2020, Azerbaijan attacked again, and this time they won the war,” Veldkamp said. “It was a ferocious war. Seven thousand people were killed in just 44 days, and some 35,000 Christians were driven out of their homes, and the Armenian Christians of Karrabach lost a lot of their land.”
Land loss reportedly came as a result of the Russian-brokered ceasefire.
That conflict has left the people of Nagorno-Karabakh in a precarious place, with the military of Azerbaijan essentially surrounding them and peacekeepers barely keeping pandemonium at bay.
“[The] only thing defending them is this small group of Russian peacekeepers,” Veldkamp said. “This is not a good time to have Russia be your only protection.”
Russia’s role in the conflict comes as Vladimir Putin continues a brutal assault on Ukraine. That conflict is making Russia’s role in the Nagorno-Karabakh drama much more complicated.
Plus, it has been widely seen as ineffective at stemming the problem. Alex Fults and Paul Stronski of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace wrote in April that Russia’s ceasefire hasn’t given “full stability” or “security” to the region.
Why Does It Matter?
Veldkamp said the Armenian chaos is an interesting dynamic in which the interests of the United States and Christians collide and overlap.
“As believers, we should look at Armenia and say, ‘This is the oldest Christian country in the world.’ This is a country that’s held on to Christianity through genocide, through Soviet Communism, through the gulags, and they’re hanging on to life,” he said. “They have some of the oldest Christian traditions in the world, and they need our help.”
From a geopolitical perspective, Veldkamp said, the U.S. is always looking to diminish Russia’s influence in the region. Considering America already gives military aid to Azerbaijan, the U.S. is essentially already involved in the crisis. This is why America has been concerned, trying to bring the two sides together.
“These are really crucial weeks and months ahead,” Veldkamp said.
The Religious Roots
While the government of Azerbaijan is secular and not officially Islamic, the nation’s populace is predominately Muslim.
Regardless of motive, Veldkamp said Azerbaijan wants to see the predominately Christian people of Nagorno-Karabakh “destroyed.”
“People are trying to wipe out our Christian brothers and sisters,” he said. “We want to be there for them. We want to support them.”
International Christian Concern sounded the alarm on the same issue in a March 2022 statement, warning that “aggression and cultural erasure of the Christian nation continues today.” In June, the organization noted the U.S. Department of State’s “2021 Report on International Religious Freedom” expressed concerns over the “destruction of Armenian religious sites by Azerbaijan.”
“According to a bishop of the Armenian Apostolic Church, since May, the
government refused access of Armenian pilgrims to a monastery in the territory that returned to Azerbaijani control after the 2020 fighting,” the report reads, in part.
Open Doors USA noted similar fears in 2020 over the 1,600 historic Armenian Christian chapels, artifacts, and monuments that were at risk of being destroyed; as a result, the organization issued a forewarning about the potential “damaging [of] the region’s Christian heritage.”
Of course, the broader impact of war and the intense battles on the ground have sparked increased needs for the populace. Continue to pray as the blockade exacerbates these constraints.
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