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An unnoticed ethnic cleansing

We must not forget the Christians of Nagorno-Karabakh

Armenian parishioners attend a national day of prayer for Artsakh at the Armenian Apostolic Cathedral in Yerevan, Armenia, on Oct. 1. Associated Press/Photo by Vasily Krestyaninov

An unnoticed ethnic cleansing
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An Armenian bishop recently prayed what could be the last liturgical Christian prayer in Artsakh, otherwise known as Nagorno-Karabakh. This is a terrible tragedy, and we must not look away or be distracted by the other conflicts occurring in Europe and Middle East. An ancient Christian people are being displaced before our very eyes.

Nagorno-Karabakh is a formerly autonomous republic nestled between Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Iran. It was, until very recently, home to over 120,000 Christians and operated as an ethnic enclave under the watchful eye of Russian peacekeepers.

The region is a disputed territory. The dispute erupted into open war in 2020 between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Tensions have remained high after the ceasefire. Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Russian peacekeeping oversight has diminished to the point where Azerbaijan’s government could act decisively and take control of the region.

The past two months has seen a dramatic shift in the direction of Azeri control. A putative anti-terrorism operation in late September was, in fact, a bombardment of Armenian Christian centers, including the capital, Stepanakert. The attacks, which continued over the next weeks, led to the end of Armenian resistance.

On Sept. 28, the president of the Republic of Artsakh decreed that all local governments in the region would cease to operate and exist by Jan. 1. By this time, over half of the Armenian population of the breakaway republic had fled.

The Azeri president, Ilham Aliyev, assured the international community that the Armenian population retained their rights as ethnic minorities within Azerbaijan’s legal framework. However, the reality has been much darker for the Armenian Christians of Nagorno-Karabakh.

By Oct. 3, as the Azeri army entered the region with a ground force, it was clear that the Armenians had abandoned hope. Within 24 hours, Azeri control of the region was assured, with reports of half-eaten food and personal belongings left behind indicative of the haste with which the Christian population fled.

The reasons for this haste have become clear as reports of starvation, shelling, and terror on the Armenian civilians emerged. Ethnic cleansing and genocide have been used to describe the actions taken by the Azeris as they acted to clear the region of Armenian elements.

Nagorno-Karabakh was the last ancient site of Armenian culture.

This is unquestionably a massive human tragedy. More than 120,000 people have been displaced from their homes and forced to flee in the face of terror and the threat of extinction. But there is more for Christians to consider as this unfolds.

Nagorno-Karabakh is an ancient site of Armenian culture and Christianity. Christianity has been present in the region for something like seventeen centuries, with traditional claims that it stretch back to the first century after Christ. Indeed, Armenia was the first nation to make Christianity its established religion.

Nagorno-Karabakh is more than simply a Christian and Armenian enclave. As the Danube Institute’s Csaba Horváth writes, “Nagorno Karabakh … represented the last remaining intact ancient pocket of unbroken Armenian demographic continuity.”

Armenians have been a pilgrim people, shunted from place to place over the centuries. Nagorno-Karabakh was the last ancient site of Armenian culture. It is also the last ancient site of Armenian Christian culture, one that is now entirely in the hands of a Muslim regime that has acted for decades to destroy the Armenian Christian heritage.

Events in Israel and Ukraine continue to hold the attention of the international community, and that’s understandable. The Azeris and Armenians are close to striking a peace deal, meaning the conflict will further retreat from the news cycle.

Yet, as Azerbaijan seizes control and begins recriminations against Armenian leaders, and Azeris look to move into the region, western Christians seem almost uninterested in the sad fate of tens of thousands of their brothers and sisters in Christ.

The destruction of Christianity in Nagorno-Karabakh is both a humanitarian tragedy and a religious tragedy. Western Christians must not look away.

Simon Kennedy

Simon Kennedy is a research fellow at the University of Queensland and a non-resident fellow at the Danube Institute. He is also associate editor of Quadrant Magazine.

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