Tensions remain high between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the southern Caucasus region of the former Soviet Union despite almost the entire population of 120,000 ethnic Armenians who are Christians, fleeing from the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh to the safety of Armenia. A new threat of war is brewing over access to another disputed territory.
Azerbaijan seized control of the enclave last month in a lightning offensive against a small separatist force in what was the self-declared Armenian republic of Artsakh. Nagorno-Karabakh was completely surrounded by Azerbaijan and was also internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan.
Despite Azerbaijan promising to reintegrate the Armenians and treat them equally with the nation’s Muslim majority, nearly every resident left of their own accord, fearing future ethnic cleansing in the enclave. The few images that have emerged from Nagorno-Karabakh’s capital Khankendi since the takeover, show a ghost town littered with abandoned vehicles and other possessions.
Pope Francis has appealed to Azerbaijan to protect houses of worship in the now deserted region. The Armenians left behind centuries of their Christian heritage embedded in its mountainous terrain. Christian aid workers shared the pontiff’s concerns that ancient monasteries and churches could be destroyed. Human rights advocate Christian Solidarity International’ reports Azerbaijani troops were seen firing at a 13th century monastery. Azerbaijan insists historic sites will be protected.
The few Christians in overwhelmingly Muslim Azerbaijan are grieving the mass exodus of their Armenian brothers and sisters in Christ. Jordan Scott from Open Doors Australia told Vision Radio: “We had two church leaders from Azerbaijan who have appealed for prayers. I think that as Azerbaijani Christians, they are really feeling the weight and depth of exactly what has happened in Nagorno-Karabakh. They’re very devastated. They’ve said that we need to pray for peace, that the Lord would stop the war. And this is really sad. They said every neighbourhood has dead soldiers, even among their relatives.”
“It’s really terrible and just a reminder that when one part hurts in the body, we all hurt. And, you know we do kind of get numb to the pain of the world and the devastation on the news. But this one for me was a reminder to just lean in and actually feel the pain and pray for these innocent people who now have to begin a new life in a new country,” she explained.
“It’s also a reminder that in our lives, persecution won’t necessarily decrease. It increases every year. Every world watch list that Open Doors produces, we see an increase in numbers of persecution. Certain countries get higher and higher every year. But that doesn’t mean that God isn’t moving in the midst of it. So we can continue praying for Him to continue to grow His church. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. Where there is persecution, there’s also incredible fruit and growth in a mysterious way. So it’s definitely an invitation to pray and continue contending for our brothers and sisters, even in their suffering,” Ms. Scott told Vision Radio.
The Armenians in the world’s first Christian nation may not have to wait long for more persecution. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has warned American lawmakers of the real possibility that Azerbaijan could soon invade Armenia. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has previously called on Armenia to open a “corridor” along its southern border, linking mainland Azerbaijan to the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic which is a landlocked exclave of Azerbaijan which borders Turkey and Iran. President Aliyev has threatened to settle the issue by force.
He would be strongly supported by Turkey whose enmity with Armenia dates back to the days of the Ottoman Empire. Azerbaijan is hosting military exercises with Turkey next week, including in Nakhchivan. President Aliyev hosted talks with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Nakhchivan last month and received the Turkish president’s support for creating a land corridor between western Azerbaijan and Nakhchivan through Armenia, which is strongly opposed to the idea.