This fall, violence broke out again between Armenia and Azerbaijan over a contested region in Azerbaijan known as Nagorno-Karabakh. Home of 170,000 people, the majority of its inhabitants are ethnic Armenian and the area itself has been governed by ethnic Armenians since 1994.

The countries’ close allegiances with other countries had worried many that the fighting and civilian deaths might spiral into a regional conflict. Armenia, for instance, has close ties to Russia and, to a lesser extent, Iran. Azerbaijan has the strong support of Turkey and some have reported that Syrian militants are also fighting alongside the Azeri.

Another complicating level is religion. More than 95 percent of Azerbaijan’s 10 million people identify as Muslim, mostly Shiite. More than 90 percent of Armenia’s three million people identify as Christian, specifically Armenian Apostolic. Armenia also boasts the oldest state church, all the way back to the beginning of the fourth century A.D.

This week on Quick to Listen we talked to Felix Corley about the country’s Christian heritage and the extent to which it is playing a role in the current conflict. Corley is editor of Forum 18 News Service, which covers religious freedom issues in the former Soviet Union. He has written extensively on the Armenian Apostolic church in the Soviet period.

Corley joined global media manager Morgan Lee and editorial director Ted Olsen to discuss how Christianity first arrived in Armenia, the enduring trauma of the genocide, and how the Apostolic Church engages and interacts with other Christians in the country.

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Quick to Listen is produced by Morgan Leeand Matt Linder

The transcript is edited by Bunmi Ishola

Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode #235

Armenia is known as having the oldest state church or being the oldest officially Christian nation, a designation they are very proud of. Are there any nuances to this designation that we should be aware of?

Felix Corley: Well, it's true. They were the first nation that officially adopted Christianity in 301 A.D., so this was before Christianity became the official religion in other countries. They are extraordinarily proud of it.

But even more important is that they date the founding of their church back to a tradition that two of Christ's apostles, Thaddeus and Bartholomew, came to Armenia in the second half of the first century to preach the gospel. So this is why they call it the apostolic church; they didn't derive their Christianity from the Greek church or the Russian church or the Georgians or whoever.

This gives them precedence in the Christian world in that self-understanding and it's an important part of their cultural identity. Whether or not people ever go near a church and darken its doors or ever light a candle, this is something everyone will know.

Are all Armenians automatically counted as members of the church from birth? Do you have to unregister if you don’t want to be? What’s the nature of the church being part of the state?

Felix Corley: Well, you don't unregister. At the moment in Armenia, there is no official register of who is a member of the church and who isn't. But even during the Soviet periods, when officially the Soviet Union was atheist and anti-religious, the head of the church kept repeating that everyone in Armenia was a member of the church because they are ethnic Armenians.

Even now, unless you're specifically a member of another community—there's a fairly long-standing Armenian Catholic community, a lot of Jehovah's Witnesses, a lot of members of Protestant churches, there's even a few Muslims in Armenia today—unless you're specifically of another faith, you are going to be deemed to be a member of the church. And if you're Armenian, you roll up, you want baptism, the priest will baptize you.

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And, in fact, when the conflict started in the late 1980s between the Armenians and the Azeris, and many of the Armenians fled from the capital and other cities of Azerbaijan, the priests would baptize them even though they knew that these people knew almost nothing about Christianity. It was almost like these people became true Armenians through their baptism. It was more becoming Armenia than becoming a Christian. So baptism is what makes you a real Armenian, is what people will tell you.

Can you tell us about Armenian history? When did Christianity arrive there and what happened over the centuries?

Felix Corley: The story that the apostles Thaddeus and Bartholomew preached in Armenia, this is something that is probably very difficult to prove either way, but when King Tiridates III was baptized in 301 A.D. and Christianity became the state religion, that is fairly well attested.

But like many nations in that part of the world, the Armenians are buffeted about by history. They'd been spread across quite a wide geographic territory. It's very difficult to actually say who each territory should belong to. Should this be Turkey? Should this be Armenian? Should this be Azerbaijan? Should this be Georgia? These are mixed areas of mixed population. It always has been.

In fact, now it's probably more ethnically concentrated than it's ever been in history, but the main parts of the Armenian population were really in the Ottoman Empire under Turkish control and the Armenians were recognized like other minorities as a separate millet, which was a political, ethnic, and religious community all rolled into one. So while Muslim Turks were the majority and they were recognized as the top-level people, they recognized other communities as second-class citizens. But within their own community, they were allowed to have places of worship, they controlled things like family law within their community. So they had some rights, but they were definitely second-class citizens in the Ottoman Empire.

In the Russian empire, again, they were treated as one of the so-called “foreign faiths,” even though they were native to the area. The foreign faiths included Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Muslims, Jews, other groups like that.

But the great tragedy for the Armenian people came in Ottoman Turkey during the late 19th century, early 20th century when the Ottomans decided they were going to drive out or kill the entire Armenian population. People estimate that 1.5 million people were massacred or died in forced marches as the Ottoman’s rounded up quite a large number of prominent Constantinople Armenians. And that is the date that the Armenians now commemorate as the start of the genocide in 1915.

And even to this day, the Turkish government is spending a lot of money, lobbying around the world, to deny this genocide. They claim it was a civil war, the Armenians killed Turks, it wasn’t 1.5 million but just ten thousand. So it’s still a very live issue, which makes Armenians very angry. It’s bad enough what happened to them. And that is why they are so spread out today—the ones that survived moved to Syria, Lebanon, Cyprus, Greece, into the Russian empire. So many Armenians today are survivors of the genocide, so it is a very live issue even now and emotions still run high.

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Is there a difference between the Armenian Apostolic Church as the other Eastern Orthodox church communities?

Felix Corley: Yes, if you look at the families of churches, you've got the Western churches— the Catholics, Protestants, and others—you have the Orthodox churches—the Russians, the Greeks, Bulgarians, Romanians, and so on—and then you have the Oriental Orthodox, which is a group of churches that includes the Armenians, the Copts, the Ethiopians, and a few others. And these are ones that did not take part in the Council of Chalcedon, so they're in their own category.

Armenian church leaders have always made a point about how the Armenian church predated the Russian church and how it was separate and are legitimate on their own as an apostolic church.

Let’s talk about a little bit the issue at hand. What can you tell us about the region of Nagorno-Karabakh and the history of the conflict overall?

Felix Corley: Well, these territorial conflicts are always very complicated, and as I said these areas always traditionally had a very mixed population.

The biggest Armenian city in the early 20th century was Tbilisi, which is now the capital of Georgia. There was a huge Armenian population, they were the intellectual class of the city, and you talk to Armenians now and they lament the fact that the city was built by Armenians and that's all gone now. There are some Armenian Armenians still there, but not so many.

One of the tragedies of what happened in the late 1980s, when conflicts started over Karabakh, was that all the Azerbaijanis and all the Muslim Kurds were kicked out of Armenia—and they were a sizeable part of the population—and all the Armenians were kicked out of Azerbaijan, except for the ones who fought back in the area of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The majority of Armenians throughout the Soviet period were in Nagorno-Karabakh, but one of the cities, Shusha, was a city that is important in both Armenian history and culture and Azeri history and cultures. So both sides are really lamenting the state of that city. The Azerbaijanis are lamenting the loss of the city and they're desperate to get it back. The Armenians are lamenting, first of all, the massacres against them in the 1920s, and also the current state of the city which is in pretty bad repair nowadays with the recent fighting.

By the end of 1994, the Armenians not only retained control of the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, but they also seized some areas around it—which not only linked that enclave to Armenia itself, creating a sort of direct land corridor to Armenia, but they also kicked out people from the surrounding villages. And I know people who come from the Azeri villages around there that are desperate for the villages to be regained. And that was part of the impetus for Azerbaijan to try to recapture even some of the territory.

During the Soviet periods, the Azerbaijanis did as much as they could to separate off the population of Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia itself. Many of the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh didn't speak Armenian, they spoke Russian. Many of them went to work in Russia; a lot of them would go as seasonal workers. Only one church was briefly allowed to exist in Nagorno-Karabakh with an Armenian population of about 140,000. It was pretty isolated, but it became a kind of focal point for Armenian grievances.

Based on the World Values Survey data, the percentage of people belonging to a real religious organization or denomination is near 100 percent, but when you get to behavior issues like the percent attending religious services about once a month, that’s only about a third of Armenians; those that pray to God more than once a week is 61 percent, but the percent that thinks religious faith is an important quality in children was 38 percent. Is there a high religious aspect to understanding what it means to be Armenian? Or is it that the Soviet Union was fairly effective in wiping out places of worship, so it’s taken a long time for religious habits like church attendance to come back up?

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Felix Corley: Whenever people interpret the question about being true Armenians and if they support Armenia, they respond, of course, they're Christians and, of course, they support the church. But I don't think church attendance is that high and it was never high in the Soviet periods. Even today, there are not that many churches around the place. I would say church attendance in Russia, for example, is far higher.

Baptism is something that I think is high. There’s a high percentage of children who are baptized. I was always a bit skeptical in the Soviet period when they'd say 60 or 70 percent of babies were baptized, but having talked to a lot of people, I suspect that was actually true.

But whether people would actually attend a church, it determines how you measure things. What people would do is go in, they'd light a candle, stay for a bit, then go. Is that church attendance? It depends on how you ask the question. But I don't think that people are particularly pious in the way that they might be in other countries. And if you compare even Russia, which has moderate church attendance, or Poland, which is far higher, I don't think it's particularly high in Armenia. So, it just really depends on the way you interpret the questions and the answers.

But in parallel to the official church, there is a folk religion, which is perhaps more deeply rooted. It's perhaps closer to Zoroastrianism or some of the early faiths, and hinges a lot on sacred places, sacred groves, tying cloths on to branches of trees, sacrifices of animals. During the Soviet period, if they were rich, they’d have a sheep, if they were poor it might be a pigeon, and they would sacrifice them at the monastery. The priests would bless the salts and put it on the animal and then they cooked the animals there and have a feast.

And this sort of folk faith is very deeply rooted and that is probably more what the universal faith is, and the church is sort of in an uneasy coexistence with it. It's not in contradiction to the Christian faith, but it's sort of separate from it. And it's sort of this split personality that the nation has in terms of religion.

What is the religious freedom situation for evangelicalism and other Protestants? Is it hard to be a non-Armenian Apostolic in Armenia?

Felix Corley: It's a very small community. There was a very severe attack on them in 1995, where almost every non-Armenian religious community were brutally attacked. People were beaten and their places of worship were trashed.

That was just after the first war over Karabakh and national feedings running high. And it was pretty much a state-sanctioned thing—nasty thuggish attacks on not only on other Christian communities but also Jehovah's Witnesses, Bhais, the Hare Krishna community. They were all physically attacked, and it was very unpleasant. It was never investigated, and the state never apologized for it. So that was a pretty unpleasant legacy.

I think the situation has eased a lot since that was 1995. In law, the Armenian apostolic church has various privileges—it does have political clout with officials, and in schools, teachers may call other religions cults—but the other communities aren’t particularly harassed anymore, outside probably the sheer weight of the Armenian church, which sort of cramps them a bit. But I wouldn't say that these days that they're restricted so much. They are free to practice.

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Despite the war, there are even some Muslims. There are areas where Muslims are Armenians who've converted to Islam, and the rest of them are business people who come up from Iran. Ironically, many of them are ethnic Azeris cause there's a large Azeri minority in Northern Iran.

Is there a renewal movement that is happening within the Armenian Apostolic church?

Felix Corley: Yes, there is, and it's been a quite long-standing movement.

In the Ottoman Empire, there was an Armenian Protestant millet or community that was separate from the Armenian apostolic millet. And in the Middle East, especially Armenian evangelical churches were quite prominent and well organized. And with immigration from the Middle East and North America, they're well organized in the United States as well.

The evangelical community almost divides into those who regard the apostolic church with respect and will work alongside it, and those that perhaps regard it as too traditional, too high-bound, too full of idolatry, or whatever.

But within the Armenian apostolic church itself, there was a renewal group called The Brotherhoods and they came from the Middle East to Soviet Armenia after WWII. More than a hundred Armenians migrated from the Middle East into Soviet Armenia, and they brought this Brotherhood to Armenia. And the leaders would have home meetings and things which might be familiar to evangelicals but were not very familiar to apostolic Christians. That seems to have fizzled out a bit more in the independence period. I think the church has probably tried to consolidate, tried to bulldoze its way through society, and for people who the Christian faith was expressed with a wider spectrum of practices than the church was comfortable with found it very difficult.

The other thing to note is that the current leader of the church is very controversial. Many people regard him as unworthy and there's quite a strong movement within the apostolic church to get him defrocked and replace him with someone they regard as more worthy. He is said to have a secret wife and family, which is not allowed for bishops in the Armenian apostolic church. He’s not regarded as being well-educated in theology or church issues. There were wild rumors about him going to casinos. So there is quite a movement to oust him and there are various priests who've turned against him. The church has suffered a dip in, in public confidence in the last few years.

As we wrap this conversation, can you share any final thoughts about the current situation?

Felix Corley: Everyone keeps saying this is not a religious war. And everyone on both sides tries to stress this. But the one problem is, the main marker of the two ethnic communities—the Armenians and the Azeris—is religion.

So like in the previous war from 1988 to 1994, they shout insults at each other based on their faith, the Armenians would paint white crosses on their tanks and uniforms so that they could identify each other as the battles were going on. But that added to this sentiment that this is a religious conflict. And when the Azeris attacked the main cathedral Armenian cathedral in Shusha, which is a very prominent monument, this just reinforced these old stereotypes.

When you hear Armenians talking about the conflict, there's a lot of angst and there's a lot of almost existential fear. They think the genocide is coming back, that the Azeris and the Turks are ganging up on them again. Maybe these thoughts are overblown, but there's a deep ethnic memory of the genocide. They lost a lot of people in the genocide. It's like the Jews with the Holocaust or the Roma also killed by the Nazis. There's just such an ethnic memory of that.

Then the Azeris cite all these cases where the Armenians attack them in history. So both start to come up with all the ethnic grievances over the years, and it's very difficult to keep the conversation really about, what can we do to make life bearable for the people now?

So there's just such a sad place we are at for both communities, both countries, and for the region.