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Let My People Come and Go, Karabakh Christians Tell Azerbaijan

As blockade begets an emerging humanitarian crisis, Artsakh’s Armenians receive groundswell of support.
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Let My People Come and Go, Karabakh Christians Tell Azerbaijan
Image: Tofik Babayeb / Getty
A Russian peacekeeper guards the Lachin corridor as Azerbaijani environmental activists protest against what they claim the illegal mining.

Armenian Christians have been calling for help. As their ethnic kin in the Caucasus enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh approach two full months under a near-complete blockade imposed by alleged eco-activists from Azerbaijan, the voices have amplified.

“Everyone knows this is the Aliyev regime,” stated Biayna Sukhudyan, a pediatric neurologist trapped inside the Delaware-sized mountainous region, which Armenians call Artsakh. “There is no time to wait and allow the next genocide, because this is genocide.”

The doctor referred to Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev, and several investigations have linked the protesters to his government. When the blockade began on December 12, official statements attributed the long-haul demonstration to illegal gold and copper mining on their still-occupied but internationally recognized sovereign territory.

In 2020, Azerbaijan launched a 44-day war to retake a region under three decades of de facto control by ethnic Armenians. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Artsakh declared itself an independent state, and with Armenian military assistance was able to hold Nagorno-Karabakh and additional Azeri territories—pending peace negotiations.

A vastly improved Azerbaijani force, aided by drone technology from Turkey, recaptured three-quarters of the land through bloody combat. Russia mediated a ceasefire, and its peacekeepers guard the Lachin corridor—the one road connecting over 100,000 beleaguered Artsakh residents with Armenia and delivering the 400 tons of daily food and medicine that supply their needs.

Since the end of the war, Sukhudyan has traveled every two months to Nagorno-Karabakh, which lacked specialist doctors. This time, amid acute shortages in the market, she was compelled to stay.

Others, including children, are prevented from returning.

“I came to Yerevan for eye surgery,” stated 13-year-old Maral Apelian, who lives in Artsakh, last month. “All I want is to go back to my family at home.

“Let my people go,” she shouted, recalling Moses. “Let my people go!”

The cry was taken up immediately by Armenian hierarchs.

“Artsakh Armenians [are] in front of a humanitarian disaster,” stated Catholicos Karekin II, supreme patriarch of the Armenian Apostolic church, on day three of the blockade. “Such provocative actions are aimed at ethnic cleansing.”

One day later, his ecclesial colleague in Lebanon invoked the crucial label.

“We are witnessing deliberate and concrete steps toward the ethnic cleansing and genocide of the Armenian population of Artsakh,” stated Catholicos Aram I, whose Holy See of Cilicia represents survivors in the Levant who fled the original Armenian Genocide in Turkey. “The need for immediate humanitarian action is critical.”

Karekin also stated he was reaching out to ecumenical colleagues.

Pope Francis led a prayer for Nagorno-Karabakh on December 18. A consortium of advocacy organizations issued a genocide warning the next day, arguing that all 14 of the United Nations risk factors were present.

Mainline leaders responded next. Without repeating the severe term of warning, a joint statement by the World Council of Churches and the Conference of European Churches demonstrated their active sympathy.

“This follows a clear pattern of behavior by Azerbaijan that contradicts any claims of goodwill,” they wrote on December 20. “In these circumstances, Armenian fears of renewed genocide against them cannot be discounted.”

A day later, the National Council of Churches framed it in religious terms.

“In a season where we celebrate the birth of Jesus in a cold stable,” it stated,” it is particularly horrific that civilians are being cut off in the middle of winter.”

One month later, many are increasingly sounding the alarm.

On January 13, Barnabas Aid put out a call to help, lamenting the issue was “rarely reported by the international media.” And on January 17, Christian Solidarity International (CSI) joined the UK’s Baroness Cox in penning a letter to President Joe Biden.

“You are the first American president to recognize the Armenian Genocide,” they stated. “We urge you not to allow another Armenian Genocide to occur on your watch.”

The missive also noted the cultural and religious heritage at stake. Churches and monasteries dating back hundreds of years populate the region, as Armenia in 301 A.D. was the first state to adopt Christianity as its official religion. Azerbaijan, however, states that many of these buildings are not Armenian at all, belonging to a related but ethnically separate Caucasian Albanian people.

Scholars reject this claim, while reports identify Azerbaijan’s efforts to destroy or alter this heritage.

One week later, the Philos Project also wrote Biden in more political terms.

“Your administration promised to put human rights at the center of its foreign policy,” it stated. “We urge you to make good on that promise, and that you avert a second Armenian genocide by taking decisive action now.”

That same day, on January 25, Philos joined CSI, International Christian Concern (ICC), In Defense of Christians, and 10 other organizations to announce the Save Karabakh Coalition (SKC). Two days later, they hosted a press conference and proceeded to demonstrate in front of the Azerbaijani embassy in Washington.

“While the world remains mainly silent,” stated Justin Murff, executive director of the Anglican Office for Government and International Affairs, “the Azerbaijani forces are aggressively trying to expel the historic Christian community from their centuries-old homeland.”

Political figures also made a bipartisan appearance, led by Brad Sherman, a Democrat from California.

“Azerbaijan [is attempting] to force Artsakh’s ethnic Armenian population out of their homes by making life … impossible,” he stated. “The tactic is blockade. The effect is civilian deprivation. The object is ethnic cleansing.”

Sam Brownback, the former US ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, lamented his earlier efforts as a Kansas senator to repeal section 907 of the 1992 Freedom Support Act, signaling Azerbaijan as the only post-Soviet state barred from receiving direct American aid.

Many participants of last week’s press conference called for a humanitarian airlift.

“I simply can’t imagine,” stated Jeff King, ICC’s executive director, “that they will dare to shoot down the American planes.”

Azerbaijan has consistently called these accusations “baseless.” The day the SKC was announced, Aliyev told US Secretary of State Antony Blinken that more than 120 Red Cross vehicles had used the road since the alleged blockade began. Video has shown Russian peacekeepers distributing aid at a maternity clinic, while emergency cases are being facilitated.

One such case was of Gayane Beglarian, who coordinated with the Red Cross to get her 5-year-old daughter from Artsakh to Armenia to Germany, for cancer treatment. But she belied the Azerbaijani rhetoric in relating that local vegetable markets are closed and food is being rationed.

“The first few days we didn’t feel it, but it is getting worse and worse every day,” she stated. “We want to go back home … but we will see if [the road reopens].”

In a recent op-ed, the assistant to the first vice president of Azerbaijan recounted Armenian atrocities during its occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh, all the while painting themselves as the victim. This campaign is designed to scuttle ongoing peace negotiations, as he accuses Armenia of doing the past three decades.

“Armenia played for time, just as it is doing now,” stated Elchin Amirbayov. “Talking about peace, preparing for war, and spreading misinformation.”

His comments infer that it is indeed Azerbaijan that is imposing the blockade, as it permits the Red Cross vehicles to enter. But he also called on Armenia to stop its illegal mining, as well as use of the road to import weapons and land mines.

Other analysis has accused Russian meddling of causing the crisis, with Artsakh leadership in close collaboration. Armenia’s prime minister, frustrated by the failure of peacekeepers to intervene, called putative ally Russia a source of “security threats” and canceled scheduled joint military drills in protest.

Russia responded by calling Armenia to return to peace negotiations. Aliyev warned 2023 will be the last year Azerbaijan entertains them. The two leaders met last year in Prague, Moscow, and Washington, following an unusual dual-track negotiating process alternating between Russian and Western sponsorship.

At one, for the first time Armenia agreed to seek a solution based on a 1991 UN declaration recognizing each other’s territorial integrity—easily interpreted as accepting Azerbaijani sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh. An announcement was made expecting a final peace deal by the end of 2022.

It didn’t happen. And a Gallup poll last month found that ceding the enclave would be deeply unpopular back home, with 97 percent of Armenians finding it “unacceptable.”

An Armenian Missionary Association of America (AMAA) appeal illustrated the sentiment.

“There are only vain calls to live together with the Turk,” stated Viktor Karapetyan, the AMAA representative in Nagorno-Karabakh, of the Turkic Azeris. “No, my friends, no, because they are them, and we are Armenians, Artsakh Armenians.”

Despite the difficulties of the blockade, he said AMAA educational, social, and development programs have continued uninterrupted, relying on local resources.

Rene Leonian, president of the Armenian Evangelical Union of Eurasia, signed the December 19 genocide warning on behalf of his organization of churches. He spoke with Karapetyan and relayed a similar message that the people of Artsakh remain strong.

“They are aware of the danger, but have decided to stay because it is their ancestral land,” Leonian told CT. “Even if they lost some territory, they feel they can take it back, however long the process.”

He prays for peace every day, and good relations with Turkey and Azerbaijan. But he also put in context the remarks of his Artsakh colleague.

“If Azerbaijan is sincere, perhaps the peace process could give positive results,” he said. “But how can we believe in the words of these leaders?”

Aliyev has consistently stated that Armenian residents of Nagorno-Karabakh will be treated as citizens within a multicultural nation. But he has also threatened taking sovereign Armenian territory by force. And in the context of the blockade, he indicated it does not exist—in one direction.

“Whoever does not want to become our citizen, the road is not closed, it is open,” Aliyev stated. “They can leave … no-one will hinder them. They can go under the awning of peacekeepers’ trucks, or they can go by bus. The road is open.”

Presumably, this also applies to Sukhudyan, the pediatric neurologist. But knowing that no other specialists are able to replace her in rotation, she will keep dealing with the lack of medicines and overall shortages of food.

She is even at peace being separated from her daughter, who is visiting Armenia on university break from Austria. Just do not make Sukhudyan into a hero for doing so, as she admires the strength of the local people she is serving.

“There are children here in need,” she stated. “I have to stay, and help them.”

[ This article is also available in Français. ]

January/February
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