Surviving a rekindled conflict
Armenian Christians mourn and seek refuge while a border battle flares
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Pastor Vazgen Zohrabyan stood outside Abovyan City Church. Behind him on this Tuesday in October, children strolled in and out of the church doors, which stood open beneath a brown illuminated cross. Three children ran past, playing and laughing. “I’m so happy to see them with smiles on their faces,” he said.
The kids are among more than 2,000 mostly women and children who fled Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed territory inside Azerbaijan, since fighting that began Sept. 27 revived a long-simmering conflict.
Abovyan, a town of 40,000 people in Armenia, is nearly 200 miles away from Nagorno-Karabakh. As the violence in Azerbaijan intensified, families took days to travel to Abovyan instead of the usual five-hour trip. Zohrabyan now has 100 people sleeping inside his church and has organized food, clothing, and counseling for other refugees in the town.
Azerbaijan launched air raids and artillery attacks on Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenian officials say, while Azerbaijan claims it merely staged a “counter-offensive in response to military provocation.”
Nagorno-Karabakh—roughly the size of Delaware—reports more than 700 military personnel killed along with at least 36 civilians dead in a month of fighting. At least 60 civilians have died in Azerbaijan, but the country failed to report military deaths.
Locals in the breakaway region said more than 70,000 people—about half its population—have fled.
Landlocked Armenia, which bridges Asia and Europe, has borders with Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, with Iran to its south. Centuries before it was swallowed into the Soviet Union, Armenia was the first country to make Christianity its official religion, in 301. Despite centuries of foreign invasions, virtually 100 percent of the population professes Christianity.
Across the border in Azerbaijan, the now-disputed Armenian district of Nagorno-Karabakh was cut off from the rest of Armenia by a decree of Josef Stalin in 1920. With the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Armenians in Karabakh declared independence in 1991, calling the territory Artsakh. But Artsakh failed to gain statehood and needed international recognition in the post–Cold War upheaval, leading to armed conflict that killed thousands before a 1994 cease-fire.
The battle that’s erupted now is the worst round of fighting since that time. Armenia and Azerbaijan have declared martial law, targeted civilian locations, and traded blame over breached Russian-brokered cease-fires. Turkey is now openly backing Azerbaijan, stoking fears of a larger regional conflict.
Christian communities in Nagorno-Karabakh are bearing the brunt of the crisis. Church leaders report that fighting has destroyed at least 6,000 homes in the Nagorno-Karabakh capital of Stepanakert. Missiles and artillery fire have hit churches, school buildings, and health centers.
MISSIONARIES FROM Zohrabyan’s Abovyan City Church traveled to an affiliated church in Nagorno-Karabakh a week before fighting broke out. Once air raids began, Zohrabyan asked the missionaries to let the locals know his church’s doors were open to them.
He expected two families in two cars to arrive at his church in Armenia that night. Only one car made it. The survivors were too shocked to speak but broke down in tears the next morning, explaining that a drone strike had hit the other car.
Zohrabyan reassured the frightened refugees of their safety. But days later on Oct. 1, a drone strike hit Abovyan.
The refugee families moved to the church’s basement, and the children from Nagorno-Karabakh began to cry. “Many people didn’t want to go out for fresh air. We had to ask them and tell them, ‘You are in a safe place here, so don’t worry,’” said Zohrabyan.
Other churches in Armenia are taking in thousands of refugees also. Seventy-four miles from Abovyan, more than 2,000 Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh have fled to the city of Vanadzor, said Pastor Rafael Grigoryan, who leads the Evangelical Christian Church.
“The refugee community is growing more and more,” Grigoryan said in a Zoom call from Vanadzor, where his church has offered the refugees clothing and food. It’s also set up collection points across the city for people to donate items. The local government has opened hotels, campgrounds, and other housing for refugees, he added.
DESPITE THE SUPPORT, images of war remain: Body bags of families’ sons and fathers continue to arrive from the battlefront.
Varduhi Grigoryan (unrelated to Rafael Grigoryan) felt heartache in the Armenian city of Gyumri when she received a text message early on Sept. 29 from her son’s friend saying, “You are a strong person and you’re really very powerful.”
The night before, she had knelt in her church to pray for Vardges Minasyan, her 26-year-old son and an officer in the Armenian military fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh. When she read the message, she knew her son had died in battle.
Varduhi learned her son gave his bulletproof vest to a younger soldier when they went to retrieve the bodies of fellow soldiers. He was the only person not to survive an attack on his team.
Varduhi wasn’t surprised by her son’s action. She described him as a symbol of kindness and peace, recalling he became the godfather/sponsor of five younger soldiers after their baptisms. Minasyan was buried on Oct. 2.
“He was always protecting people who needed it,” Varduhi said. “It’s important his name goes down in history because he was a hero.”
Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh prize the region’s rich spiritual heritage: Churches and monasteries date back to early Christianity.
On Oct. 8, suspected Azerbaijani shelling struck the towering Ghazanchetsots Cathedral in the town of Shusha. A shell left a hole in the church’s high ceiling and scattered debris across partially damaged pews.
Zohrabyan said he received word that an evangelical church in Stepanakert was “totally destroyed.” Attacks also damaged several other churches belonging to Baptist, Pentecostal, and other denominations in the region, Rafael Grigoryan added.
“We have first-century Christian sites there,” said Aram Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America. “[These attacks] are meant to terrorize the population to make them flee or give up.”
TURKEY’S INVOLVEMENT is now stoking fears of a wider regional conflict and ethnic cleansing. Armenia reported a Turkish F-16 fighter jet shot down one of its planes on Sept. 29, and satellite images showed at least two Turkish F-16s and a possible cargo plane at Azerbaijan’s Ganja airport.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is denying involvement in the battle, but French intelligence confirmed that Turkey transported hundreds of fighters into Azerbaijan. They include at least 300 Syrian fighters linked to jihadist groups from Aleppo, transported from Syria to Gaziantep in southeastern Turkey and into Azerbaijan. Turkey also airlifted more than 1,000 mercenaries into Azerbaijan, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Erdogan had already been strengthening his country’s military alliance with Azerbaijan, holding Turkey’s largest-ever military drills there in July. Armenia called for Turkey’s withdrawal after a border skirmish then.
October’s fighting sets the stage for a wider war involving the region’s major powers. Russia maintains a military base in Armenia and is part of a treaty assuring support to Armenia if it faces a security threat. After a July border skirmish between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Moscow brokered one cease-fire, then two more in October. But fighters in the two countries have repeatedly broken the truces. Meanwhile, Moscow also maintains political and economic relations with oil-rich Azerbaijan.
“How vested [Russian] President Putin is in finding a way out is unclear, but Russia has no interest in an escalation that brings pressure for it to intervene on Armenia’s behalf,” the International Crisis Group reported in an October review of the conflict.
Armenians view Turkey’s intervention on behalf of Azerbaijan as a continuation of the massacre by Ottoman Turks that killed up to 1.5 million Armenians during World War I.
Armenians who remain in Turkey report growing threats and abuse, along with anti-Armenian demonstrations. A grenade targeting an Armenian church in Hasakah, in northeastern Syria, injured two people on Sept. 29. Armenians living in northeast Syria have faced growing threats from Turkey-allied fighters. Last year two well-known Armenian Catholic priests, father and son, were gunned down.
“Turkey and Azerbaijan are trying to regather the Ottoman Empire all back and establish their Islamic rule in the entire territory,” Pastor Grigoryan of the Evangelical Christian Church said.
Deploying Islamic jihadist fighters to attack Armenian Christians, said former U.S. Ambassador Carey Cavanaugh, intensifies what many view as a conflict over territory.
“If you have jihadists who are not employed in Syria and are willing to go to Azerbaijan and fight, if they spread that sentiment, then you inject yet another problem,” said Cavanaugh, who helped broker talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 2001.
But Armenians say they already face a religious conflict. Pastor Zohrabyan said he and others have seen multiple videos online of Islamists from Syria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan threatening to kill their families and destroy their cities. “I don’t have any doubt that those troops would go out of the control of the Azerbaijan government and will be a big problem for the Azerbaijan nation, for Iran, for the northern Caucasus region, for Russia, for Georgia,” he said.
It wouldn’t be the first instance of religious antagonism. The Ottoman Empire overran western Armenia in the 16th century. More recently, Turkey converted the ancient Hagia Sophia church from a museum into a mosque, noted Baroness Caroline Cox, a member of the British House of Lords (and WORLD’s 2004 Daniel of the Year). She’s made dozens of trips to the region during conflicts in the 1990s.
“There is a real fear that there might be another thought of a new genocide,” she said.
Cox explained that Nagorno-Karabakh is a “deeply, deeply historic Armenian land,” and asked Christians to lobby political leaders to pressure Turkey and Azerbaijan into accepting a cease-fire: “There’s no more time for waiting.”
Western powers long played a role in protecting breakaway republics from Cold War Soviet domination and in shielding minority religious and ethnic enclaves, like the Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh. This time it’s unclear whether NATO powers like the United States, France, or Britain will lead, but advocacy groups are calling on the United States to ramp up its intervention. About half a million Armenians live in the United States—many of them direct descendants of survivors of Turkey’s Armenian genocide.
In an Oct. 4 statement from the intergovernmental Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the United States, Russia, and France condemned the escalating violence. Canada has suspended drone technology exports to Turkey because of reports that Azerbaijan used the equipment in the battle against Armenian forces, said Hamparian, the Armenian National Committee of America director. He said the United States should stop military aid to Turkey and Azerbaijan, too.
In Los Angeles, home to the largest Armenian American population, thousands of people waved flags and banners outside the Turkish Consulate, demanding peace. Some blocked freeways in protest. Demonstrators also gathered outside the Azerbaijan Consulate to protest the fighting. Similar marches took place in Boston and New York.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and mayors of other cities with large Armenian American populations urged Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in an Oct. 9 letter to lead negotiating efforts for Turkey to disengage from the region.
BUT CHRISTIANS in Armenia are trying to prepare refugees for a long-term conflict. Zohrabyan is encouraging refugee parents to send their children to school in Abovyan, but many say they won’t because they plan to return home soon. They don’t realize the extent of destruction to their communities from October’s fighting, Zohrabyan said.
He is thinking ahead to the coming winter, focusing on how to ensure the families are protected. No international humanitarian aid has arrived in his community, but he continues to receive help from church members and friends.
“We don’t lose our hope,” Zohrabyan said. “We are here—to be representatives of real Christianity in our region.”
—with additional reporting from World Journalism Institute graduate Sarah Stites in Armenia and Jill Nelson
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