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Christian Witness After War: A Firsthand Assessment of Armenia and Azerbaijan

Image: Alex McBride / Getty Images News

Ibrahim Baghirov died as an infant. His mother, Mary, had read in the Gospels about Jesus and Lazarus, so she prayed for God to raise her child from the dead. He did, she says. Doctors in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, confirmed the miracle to her, which also confirmed her fledgling faith as a Muslim-background Christian.

Two decades later, Baghirov is an emerging preacher in the church that meets in the family’s home.

But in September 2020, as Azerbaijan launched what would become a 44-day war against neighboring Armenia, Mary’s faith faltered. Having once trusted God where medicine failed, she hastily made her son an appointment for an unnecessary surgery in hopes of keeping him from conscription. He gently rebuked her.

“I will go wherever God takes me,” said Baghirov, now 26 years old. “There are ways to keep me here, but there will be no blessing in that.”

He deployed within weeks to the front lines in the snowcapped peaks of Nagorno-Karabakh, a swath of land about the size of Delaware that is encircled by present-day Azerbaijan and has been contested for centuries.

Along the way, Baghirov said he received a word from God: None of his fellow soldiers would die, and he would be their minister. His country is predominantly Muslim, and several of his comrades shunned him after his pocket New Testament fell from his backpack. Others asked questions, though, and became friends.

Azerbaijan, with a reputation as one of the most secular countries in the Muslim world, is tolerant of its long-established Christian minority community. But its long-standing animosities toward Christian Armenia are a different story.

The two countries’ generations-old dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh—a majority-Armenian territory whose modern borders were established in 1923 when Joseph Stalin made it part of Azerbaijan—has been fierce. The worst atrocities of the early 20th century killed thousands, leveling villages and leaving blood on both Armenian and Azeri hands. Relations were more neighborly for several decades, until the Soviet Union disintegrated and triggered a new round of massacres beginning in the late 1980s. Thousands were displaced from their homes as each nation purged its opposing ethnic minority, while Armenia depopulated a buffer zone around the territory to protect it from attacks.

In 1991, Nagorno-Karabakh voted for independence, and Armenia-backed forces eventually secured control of the region, dubbing it the Republic of Artsakh. (Neither Azerbaijan nor the international community has recognized Artsakh’s sovereignty.) Skirmishes between the countries smoldered for decades during a languishing peace process led by the US, France, and Russia.

But in 2020, Azerbaijan conscripted soldiers and advanced on the territory in yet another conflict. Baghirov was assigned to an artillery unit, a post that spared his tender pastoral heart from one adversity, at least: He would not engage in direct combat against the fellow Christians he and his military were slowly overtaking.

But Baghirov said he heard another word from God, another promise: Not one Armenian would die from his hand.

On the other side of the lines, shivering in the snow, fighters in an Armenian unit were also talking to God. An embedded priest from the Apostolic Church, the national church of Armenians, carried a relic of the holy cross and encouraged them as they knelt. They beseeched God for their fellow soldiers, surrounded by Azerbaijani forces and pounded by missiles and suicide drones.

“Don’t lose hope,” said Menuk Zeynalyan. “Our struggle is for our holy church and holy land.”

A married father of four, Zeynalyan left a comfortable parish among the Armenian minority in the neighboring nation of Georgia and signed up for military chaplaincy in 2019. Before the war, he led soldiers in three weekly Bible lessons. Many came from irreligious homes, raised by parents under the banner of Soviet atheism. But within two months, he said, everyone knew the catechism.

His highlight was the prayer of dedication prior to the soldier’s oath. Before swearing the secular pledge to defend the nation, Zeynalyan tied their patriotism to the Lord. After all, tradition had it that Thaddeus and Bartholomew preached the gospel in Armenia. And their country had become the world’s first officially Christian nation in the year 301, long before the Roman Empire followed suit.

Miraculously, Zeynalyan’s prayers were answered, and his beleaguered colleagues emerged from the battle unscathed. Zeynalyan said he witnessed many examples of divine intervention in 2020. He was at the Ghazanchetsots Cathedral in the city of Shusha—known to Armenians as Shushi—on October 8, when two missiles struck within five hours in an attack Human Rights Watch deemed a possible war crime.

In early December 2020—with the Armenian lines broken and at least 6,000 soldiers confirmed killed—a Russia-brokered ceasefire ended hostilities. Shusha, the crown jewel of Nagorno-Karabakh, was back under Azerbaijani control, and their military was poised to seize the regional capital of Khankendi, known to Armenians as Stepanakert.

“It was pure joy to recapture our land,” Baghirov said. “For three decades, it was a heavy burden in our hearts, and finally our people can return to their homes.”

Officially, however, it is a ceasefire and not a capitulation. Armenia maintains control over Stepanakert and about a third of the disputed territory, protected by Russian peacekeepers. And while the mood is somber in the Armenian capital of Yerevan, about five hours away, Zeynalyan keeps his faith.

“No matter how much land we lose,” the chaplain said, “we are God’s people and will remain here until the second coming of Christ.”

Christianity Today spoke with more than two dozen sources during a visit to both nations one year after the war. It’s an open question how, if at all, they will reconcile their intense differences.

But for a few Christians in Armenia and Azerbaijan, a more personal question nags. Isn’t there a unity in Christ that transcends geopolitical grievances?

And if there is, should Christians wait for their governments to make peace? Or should they start themselves, by making peace with fellow believers behind enemy lines? For hundreds of years, the Caucasus region has been…

This article was originally published in the March print edition of Christianity Today. Please click here to read the full text.

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