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Armenian Christians Endure Christmas Blockade in Artsakh

Image: Photo by Davit Ghahramanyan / AFP / Getty Images

There are no oranges in Artsakh for Christmas.

Celebrated on January 6 according to the local Orthodox calendar, holiday festivities will be curtailed this year in the disputed Caucasus enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. Demonstrations by reported environmental activists from Azerbaijan have closed the one road connecting the mountainous territory to Armenia, and Russian peacekeeping forces have failed to intervene.

Over 100,000 Armenians depend on daily imports of 400 tons of food and medicine to the enclave they call Artsakh. With the blockade of the Lachin corridor now in its third week, local officials are warning of a humanitarian disaster as they implement price controls and ration remaining goods.

But the Christmas tree is lit in the central square of the capital, Stepanakert.

“People will carry on with the traditions as best they can,” said Aren Deyirmenjian, country representative for the Armenian Missionary Association of America (AMAA). “But we will reflect the love of a God who stays by your side, even when all goes wrong.”

During a 44-day war with 6,500 casualties in 2020, Azerbaijan recaptured three-quarters of its internationally recognized sovereign territory, before Russia engineered a ceasefire. The indigenous Armenian inhabitants controlled the enclave for the previous 30 years, claiming the right of self-determination in an unrecognized 1991 independence referendum.

Following its defeat two years ago, Armenia pursued peace treaties with neighboring Azerbaijan and Turkey, which had backed their Turkic kin with decisive drone technology. But these were interrupted by further clashes, in which Azerbaijan seized further territory in Nagorno-Karabakh and even along Armenia’s border.

And beginning December 12, Azerbaijani activists set up camp to protest alleged illegal gold and copper mining, exported through Lachin back to Armenia. Terms of the armistice left Russian peacekeepers in charge of the road, with no Azerbaijani oversight.

“We can stay here for months,” stated one demonstrator.

Local residents have reported shortages, with no fruit in Artsakh’s markets—part of the traditional Christmas Eve feast alongside fish, rice pilaf, and raisins. More critically, hospital patients lack essential medicines, with only a handful allowed transfer to facilities in Armenia proper. Gas supplies were cut for three days in the winter cold. And about 1,000 residents were stranded in the border town of Goris—including 18 members of a children’s choir which had performed in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan.

Azerbaijan has denied it is imposing a blockade. Officials have said that anyone will be allowed travel through the Lachin corridor, upon prior permission and submission to local inspection. If none pass through, they blame the Russians and Armenians.

So far, only the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has gained access to Nagorno-Karabakh. Deyirmenjian said the Armenian social affairs ministry contacted the AMAA to participate in the ICRC 10-ton aid delivery, adding 220 pounds of infant formula to the first effort, and 1,100 pounds of rice alongside two tons of sugar in the second.

Upon arrival, the AMAA center in Stepanakert, located near the only Armenian Evangelical church in the enclave, coordinated distribution in the neighborhood, including its 125 members.

So far, local morale is high.

“Our office manger told me: ‘We are happy we are on this side of the blockade,’” Deyirmenjian said. “It gave me chills.” Garegin Hambardzumyan concurs. A priest in the Armenian Apostolic church, he heads the Oriental Orthodox denomination’s Department for the Preservation of Cultural and Spiritual Values of Artsakh. Generations of Armenians have lived in the rugged, mountainous land for a thousand years, he said. They will not be…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today on January 4, 2023. Please click here to read the full text.

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