Almost the entire Christian population of a self-declared republic in the far south of what was once the Soviet Union have fled from an enclave that had been their homeland for centuries.
More than 100,000 ethnic Armenians have evacuated from the Nagorno-Karabakh region to Armenia since Azerbaijan seized control of the territory in a lightning military offensive late last month. Only 20,000 remain and Armenia’s prime minister predicts every single one of them will leave the territory.
Azerbaijan which is overwhelmingly Muslim pledged to reintegrate the region and treat all its residents as equals, but the Christian Armenians weren’t convinced that would happen and packed all their belongings and headed for a new life in Armenia. Analysts expect Azerbaijan to almost immediately start populating the region with its own people.
“They will cleanse the entire region of Armenians, destroy Armenians’ cultural heritage, and erase memories,” Bishop Hovakim Manukyan told Christian charity Barnabas Aid which is assisting in the relief effort for the evacuees mobilised by the Armenian Church and its government.
Nagorno-Karabakh has been internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan, but was populated almost entirely by ethnic Armenians who ran their own state there – the self-styled Republic of Artsakh – since the 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The mountainous region in the South Caucasus also had some support from Russia which has been a strong ally of Armenia. Azerbaijan was strongly backed by Turkey.
It will cease to exist as Nagorno-Karabakh from next year after its leader signed an order dissolving all state institutions from January 1. He surrendered when separatist forces had no hope of repelling the advancing Azerbaijan troops. It’s estimated 200 people died in the initial attack and almost the same number in a massive fuel depot explosion whose cause remains a mystery.
The dispute between Armenians and Azeris dates back more than a century. From 1988 to 1994 about 30,000 people were killed and more than a million people, mostly ethnic Azeris, were driven from their homes as the Armenians overthrew the nominal Azerbaijani control in what is known as the First Karabakh War.
Azerbaijan regained territory in and around Nagorno-Karabakh in the 44-day war in 2020, in which at least 6,500 people died. It ended with a Moscow-brokered peace deal and the deployment of a contingent of Russian peacekeepers.
Armenian priest Father David fears for Nagorno-Karabakh’s ancient Christian heritage as he provides spiritual support to tens of thousands of his fleeing compatriots. “This is one of the darkest pages of Armenian history. The whole of Armenian history is full of hardships. The blow we are receiving now is one of the heaviest,” he told the Reuters news agency.
Father David said the enclave is home to around 400 Armenian Christian holy sites, some of which were destroyed in previous military conflicts over the territory. “The monasteries are under threat of destruction,” he said.
Although most of its neighbours are Muslim, Armenia is officially the world’s oldest officially Christian country, traditionally dating its conversion back to 301 AD. Its Apostolic Church is distinct from both Orthodoxy and Catholicism, and is closely related to the Ethiopian and Egyptian Coptic churches. It is central to the identity of Armenia, which is dotted with historic monastery complexes.
Father David said he expected Azerbaijan to claim that many monasteries in Nagorno-Karabakh are not Armenian, but belong to an earlier Christian civilisation known as Caucasian Albania, of which little is known. There are churches in Azerbaijan which authorities claim are Caucasian Albanian rather than Armenian which the Armenians strongly dispute. “Probably they will try to distort history, to say there is no Armenian trace here,” he said. He believed the larger monasteries are safe because of their tourism potential.
The priest claimed the enmity between Armenians and Azeris was not primarily religious, noting that Armenia has strong ties with neighbouring Iran, which shares a Shi’ite Islamic faith with Azerbaijan. He views it as a political and ethnic conflict that parallels the mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks during World War One. Armenia, backed by many historians and the parliaments of numerous countries, says it amounted to a genocide, a charge strongly denied by Turkey. “This isn’t a war of faiths, or a war against Christianity. It is a typical continuation of the genocidal policies that Turkey once pursued,” he asserted.
Photo: Russian Ministry of Defence