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Azerbaijan’s Churches Explain Their Evangelism

Image: Emad Aljumah / Getty Images

Emil Panahov has a vision.

“I want to see 96 percent of Azerbaijanis confess their faith in Christ, and revival often began when the king became a believer,” he said. “But our God is the president of presidents, so the government does not rule over me.”

He has a long way to go.

Panahov, founder of the Vineyard church in Muslim-majority Azerbaijan, arrives at his target by inverting his homeland’s estimated proportion of Christians: 4 percent. Most of these are Russian Orthodox, holdovers from when the Caucasus nation of 10 million was part of the Soviet Union.

But the Azerbaijan Bible Society estimates that 20,000 Azeris have become evangelicals, most within the past two decades. And the government—despite being panned for widespread human rights violations in politics—has earned local plaudits for its level of religious freedom, especially toward Christians and Jews.

Panahov’s own story supports his optimism. But is it wise? Orthodox, Catholic, and Presbyterian leaders offer a word of caution.

From an Azeri Muslim family with a communist father, in 1989 Panahov came to faith at the age of 12 through a local Russian Baptist church. But as he grew interested in the arts and dancing, the conservative Christian community could not accept such worldly activity.

Panahov fell away from the faith as he performed professionally around the world—until in 2007 he tore his meniscus. Doctors in Turkey, where he lived at the time, told him he would never dance again.

It was then he recalled Jesus—whom he said spoke a word of healing to him. But through his Turkish pastor, God also gave him a commission: Return to Azerbaijan, and share what God has done for you.

Panahov was reluctant, knowing his artistic passion was a spiritual offense. But trusting God, he went back and eventually found a new church home. Over the next seven years he worshiped comfortably, started a family, and even found work as a dance instructor. But then he heard again the voice that healed him: Go out and start a house church.

He left his fellowship with tears but knew to obey. In the beginning he met mostly with believing relatives, but four years later their number grew to the 50 required by the authorities for registration. Similar miracles have marked many in the movement, which according to Panahov counts 350 believers in 16 cell groups, spread throughout his Caspian Sea country.

And God has used his artistic talent. His team has drawn hundreds to gospel-themed performances in downtown Baku, the nation’s capital. Media and filmmaking have put the message on the internet. The Vineyard church baptized 64 new Christians during the pandemic, he said, and 36 during Azerbaijan’s victorious war with neighboring Armenia.

“Two years ago, the churches did not believe opportunities for evangelism could reach such a level,” Panahov said. “But I know it is from God, because I don’t have the brains for it.”

It is also from the government, which following many years of suppression now works with church leaders to legalize their fellowships. While noting a positive trend, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom still recommends Azerbaijan for inclusion on the State Department’s Special Watch List for religious freedom violators.

Of concern is the legislation that requires 50 people before legal registration. Many evangelicals celebrate the freedom they do have—and the movement of the Holy Spirit to far surpass this number. But some notice…

This article was originally published by Christianity Today on April 1, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.

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Azerbaijan Adds Fuel to Armenian Concerns in Karabakh

Image: Alex McBride / Getty Images

Suffering freezing temperatures during the long winter cold in the Caucasus Mountains, this month Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh had no heating for three weeks. The natural gas “malfunction,” stated Azerbaijan’s state-run energy distribution company, has now been repaired.

It is not often that pipeline maintenance draws international concern.

The European Union and Freedom House both called for quick resumption of the supply in order to avert a humanitarian crisis. Over 100,000 residents in the contested enclave rely on Armenian natural gas that passes through Azerbaijani territory.

Nagorno-Karabakh, which Armenians call Artsakh, lies within the internationally recognized territory of Azerbaijan. Armenians accused Azerbaijan of deliberate disruption, prevention of repair, and installation of a new valve with which they can shut off gas flow at will.

Secured by Armenians backed by Armenia’s military following the fall of the Soviet Union, Artsakh sought independence for three decades while controlling six buffer zones in depopulated Azerbaijani lands. Negotiations failed to resolve the dispute, until Azerbaijan launched a 44-day war in 2020 that recovered significant territory.

A Russian-brokered ceasefire ended active hostilities.

Yet skirmishes continue, and Azerbaijan accuses Armenia of instigation. Last November, Armenia stated an Azerbaijani incursion occupied 15 square miles of sovereign territory. Christianity Today was reporting from one of the liberated buffer territories at the time.

And in the month prior to the pipeline issue—with the world’s attention focused on Ukraine—Russia officially accused Azerbaijan of breaking the terms of the ceasefire. Monitors recorded at least four incidents of firing toward Armenian villages. Three soldiers were reportedly killed by an Azerbaijani drone; another was shot by a soldier across the border.

After years of holding the upper hand in Nagorno-Karabakh, the reversal suffered in the war has Armenians fearful of genocide. Now victorious, Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev has pledged to develop the area economically and to treat Armenians as equal citizens.

The recent conduct makes many doubt these promises.

“They openly can’t go for a full-blown war today since Russian peacekeepers are deployed here,” stated an Armenian journalist. “So they do everything to disrupt normal life and make people leave their homeland.”

But it goes beyond “Artsakh.” To emphasize its sovereignty over the region, Azerbaijan has…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today on March 31, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.

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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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Suing for Peace: Can Clerics Reconcile Armenia and Azerbaijan Better Than Courts?

Image: Courtesy of Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin, Information Services
Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill I reads a joint statement flanked by Armenian Catholicos Karekin II (left) and Azerbaijan Grand Mufti of the Caucasus Allahshukur Pashazade (right) in Moscow on October 13.

After 17 tries, there is still no peace in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Almost a year ago, Russia brokered a November 2020 ceasefire to end the 44-day war between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the Caucasus mountain enclave. Azerbaijan reclaimed most of its internationally recognized territory occupied since 1994 by ethnic Armenians, who demand independence.

Armenia has been a Christian nation since A.D. 301. Azerbaijan is majority Muslim. But spiritual leaders have been no more successful than politicians or generals at securing reconciliation.

Yet that has not stopped Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill I from trying.

“Our religions have a unique peace-making potential,” he stated at last week’s tripartite summit of top clerical leaders. “No matter how difficult Armenian-Azerbaijani relations are at this stage, we believe that it is faith in God, and love, that can help heal the wounds.”

And they are many.

The post–Soviet Union conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh—called Artsakh by Armenians—killed 30,000 people and displaced 1 million. As Azerbaijan recaptured the territory—slightly larger than Rhode Island—last year, another 7,000 were killed. Mutual acrimony has characterized relations, with both sides accusing the other of destroying their religious heritage.

The first meeting of spiritual leaders was held in 1993. The 16th in 2017. Simply by bringing these leaders together…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today on October 19, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.

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Anticipating Biden’s Genocide Decision, Armenians Fear a Cultural One in Azerbaijan

Image: Press Service of the Republic of Azerbaijan
Azerbaijan President Ilhan Aliyev visits St. Astvatsatsin Church in newly controlled Nagorno-Karabakh with his wife and daughter in March 2021.

Armenian fears of a new genocide were put on hold following the fall of Shusha, the crown jewel of Nagorno-Karabakh, high in the Caucasus Mountains. Last November, Azerbaijani forces captured the city—known to Armenians as Shushi—after which a ceasefire ended the military hostilities.

But not the cultural.

Last month, satellite imagery allegedly revealed the destruction of Shusha’s Armenian Genocide Memorial. Constructed in 2009, it leaves a bitter taste during this year’s April 24 remembrance of the 1.5 million lives lost when Turks expelled Armenians from their homes a century ago.

President Joe Biden may recognize the atrocity by stating the word genocide in his commemorative speech.

But the horrors witnessed in Turkey reached also to Shusha, where Azerbaijanis massacred the local Armenian population.

“As in 1915, the Turco-Azeris are committing not only a human genocide against the Armenians, but also a cultural genocide,” said Rene Leonian, president of the Union of Armenian Evangelical Churches in Eurasia.

“Unfortunately, nations and international organizations are too passive to firmly condemn these abuses.”

They can now add the case of the disappearing church.

Following the war, video footage emerged of an Azerbaijani soldier shouting “Allahu Akbar” from the rooftop of the Holy Mother of God church in the town of Jabrayil.

In search of the simple stone-built chapel, the BBC discovered no trace whatsoever.

The escorting policeman first said it was destroyed in the war. He then changed his story saying the Armenians dismantled it before they left.

Presidential advisor Hikmat Hajiyev told the BBC the matter would be investigated, but then shifted the discussion to the nearly 30-year Armenian occupation.

It was not wholly inappropriate. The church in question was built on a military base, after Armenia seized the disputed Caucasus enclave during the first Nagorno-Karabakh war in 1993. Jabrayil became…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on April 23, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.

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Azerbaijan Archbishop: Our Holy Mission Is to Keep Peace

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The saying is clear: To the victor go the spoils.

And morally, with it comes the burden of peace.

In November, Christian-heritage Armenia surrendered to Muslim-majority Azerbaijani forces besieging the Caucasus mountain area of Nagorno-Karabakh. The ceasefire agreement ended a six-week war that cost each side roughly 3,000 soldiers, and left unsettled the final status of the Armenian-populated enclave they call Artsakh.

Azerbaijan, however, recovered the rest of its internationally recognized territory, including the historic city of Shushi. The first Karabakh war ended in 1994, and displaced hundreds of thousands from their homes on both sides.

Archbishop Alexander, head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Azerbaijan, reached out to CT to promote a process of reconciliation.

It will not be easy.

What is your vision for reconciliation?

We are both eastern Christian communities, and we have much in common.

At the same time, 1,500 years of separation between the Eastern Orthodox church and the Armenian Apostolic church has complicated relations. We have holy books and traditions in common, but we are not in fellowship.

Both of us have been living among Muslims since Islam was introduced in our region. But the manner of living has been very different. The Orthodox church in Azerbaijan found a way to live together with Muslims, but Armenians did not. Relations were not always…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on January 5, 2020. Please click here to read the full article.

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Will Caucasus Conflict Come Also to France?

Image: Courtesy of Gilbert Léonian
Gilbert Léonian and his wife in front of their Paris church.

Throughout the six-week war in Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian diaspora rallied in support of an ancient Caucasus mountain homeland they call Artsakh.

Overall, they donated $150 million in economic and humanitarian aid.

In California, they blocked freeway traffic to protest the lack of news coverage.

In Lebanon, they hung banners against Azerbaijani and Turkish aggression.

And in France, they successfully lobbied the senate for a non-binding resolution recognizing Artsakh’s independence. (International law recognizes Nagorno-Karabakh as Azerbaijani territory.)

The symbolic vote angered Azerbaijan, which called for France’s removal from the Minsk Group, co-chaired with Russia and the United States and tasked with overseeing negotiations with Armenia since 1994. Turkey has petitioned for a leading role.

But the consequences go beyond regional politics. The controversy could threaten the French social peace, already riled amid President Emmanuel Macron’s campaign against Muslim “separatism.”

Azerbaijan, and especially allied Turkey, also have an extensive diaspora throughout Europe. And last month, their supporters led demonstrations in Armenian neighborhoods in Lyon, vandalizing the Armenian genocide memorial.

France then banned one of the more violent groups, the Grey Wolves.

To gauge the situation, CT interviewed Gilbert Léonian, a Paris-based pastor and president of the Federation of Armenian Evangelical Churches in Europe. Of the roughly 500,000 French people of Armenian origin in France, about 3 percent are evangelical, worshiping across nine churches.

(Like many French pastors across all ethnicities, Léonian studied at the well-known evangelical seminary in Vaux sur Seine, near Paris. He recalled reading CT in the 1970s, as he studied under the renowned theologian Henri Blocher.)

Léonian discussed relations between the ethnic communities, his fears for the fate of Nagorno-Karabakh churches, and his personal struggle to love his Azerbaijani and Turkish neighbors:

To what degree are the Armenian, Turkish, and Azerbaijani communities integrated into secular French society? Do they maintain their respective faiths?

The first Armenians arrived in France in the early 1920s, following the genocide of 1915–1918.

Others came to France in different migratory waves due to insecurity in their countries of origin: Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Iran, and more recently, Armenia, following the 1988 earthquake.

Today in France, the Armenian population is mainly established along a south-to-north line from the Mediterranean port city of Marseilles, where the majority of original immigrants arrived and settled, through France’s second largest city of Lyons, and up to Paris.

The Armenian people are deeply religious, and were the first people to accept Christianity as their state religion, in 301 A.D., 12 years before Emperor Constantine’s Edict of Tolerance in 313 A.D. In France, 90 percent belong to the Apostolic [Orthodox] community, in 24 churches. Catholics represent 7 percent, in five churches. Very few Armenians call themselves atheists.

However, we are seeing a major secularization of religious practice, reflecting the general trend in Europe. For many Armenians, the church is more the place where the diaspora maintains its identity and culture, rather than a place where Christian piety is nurtured. There are about 800,000 Turks and 50,000 Azerbaijanis in France, and overall they try…

(Interview and translation by Jean-Paul Rempp.)

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on December 8, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.

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Interview: Pilgrim Radio and the Armenian Crisis

Two weeks ago, I was interviewed by Pilgrim Radio about the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

But the primary angle was Turkish repentance. Recently for Christianity Today, I wrote about a movement among Turkish Christians to apologize for the Armenian genocide.

To do so it was necessary to provide context, and also reflect on current events.

Since recording, the conflict ended with a decisive victory for Azerbaijan.

But the story is not yet over. Armenians are leaving their ancient land, as Russia and Turkey work out a new geopolitical arrangement.

Please click here to listen to the recording on Pilgrim Radio, a Christian network operating in the American northwest.

Otherwise, here is the direct link on Soundcloud:

This is the third time I have presented on their program. The first was on the growth of Christianity in the Arabian Peninsula. The second was on Coptic forgiveness of ISIS for the martyrs in Libya.

Thank you for your interest, and I hope you profit from the listening.

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Foxhole Faith in Nagorno-Karabakh

Note: This article was written prior to the cessation of hostilities concluded between Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Russia.

The Armenian mountain stronghold of Shushi is under attack.

The second city of Nagorno-Karabakh, one of its oldest artifacts is a 15th-century Bible. Earlier in the conflict this year, its 19th-century cathedral was struck twice and damaged by missiles.

But Azerbaijanis—who call it Shusha—celebrate it also as a cultural heritage. Many of their famous poets and musicians hail from the once-mixed city.

As the six-week war progressed, Azerbaijan steadily retook the plains below. But facing the coming winter, its military faced a stark choice: impose a siege, or scale the mountain.

Without Shusha, President Ilham Aliyev said, the job is only half done.

Despite its Armenian-majority population, Nagorno-Karabakh was assigned to Azerbaijan in the 1920s by Joseph Stalin. Both nations became independent in 1991, and the mountainous enclave conducted a referendum to declare itself the Republic of Artsakh. Ethnic warfare gripped the region, with 30,000 killed and around 1 million displaced.

Population transfers largely emptied each nation of its opposite ethnicity.

At the time of the ceasefire in 1994, Armenians controlled roughly 20 percent of Azerbaijan. No nation recognized Artsakh, and internationally sponsored negotiations began—and eventually stalled.

But buoyed by a financial windfall from oil and gas exports to Europe, as well as advanced weapons from Israel and Turkey, in late September Azerbaijan pressed its military advantage. If successful, it will perch above Stepanakert, the capital city of Nagorno-Karabakh, only six miles away.

“After 28 years, the adhan [call to prayer] will be heard in Shusha,” celebrated Aliyev. “Our victory march continues.”

Armenian forces say the fighting continues.

“So far, Armenians have successfully pushed back all attempts to take over this homeland,” said Harout Nercessian, the Armenia representative for the Armenian Missionary Association of America (AMAA).

“We will never surrender Shushi.” But within the debate over whether the conflict with Muslim-majority Azerbaijan is a religious war with Christian Armenians, signs of faith, piety, and pleas for divine favor mark many of the partisans, including…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on November 9, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.

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Azerbaijan Evangelicals: Conflict with Armenians Is Not a Religious War

Church of Kish in Azerbaijan, by Asif Masimov

Vadim Melnikov once fought for the land of Noah.

Donning his Azerbaijani uniform 17 years ago, the ethnic Russian took his post to defend Nakhchivan, an Azeri enclave bordering Turkey and separated from their countrymen by the nation of Armenia.

Known in both the Armenian and Azeri languages as “the place of descent,” referring to Noah’s landing on nearby Mt. Ararat, Nakhchivan is a geographical reminder of the mixed ethnic composition of the Caucasus Mountains.

As is Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave within Azerbaijan.

Its etymology is also a reminder of the region’s diversity. Nagorno is Russian for mountains, while Karabakh combines the Turkic for black and the Persian for garden.

Armenians call it Artsakh, the name of a province in their ancient kingdom. For the last three weeks, they have been defending their de facto control of the region as Azerbaijan fights to reassert its sovereignty.

As Melnikov did decades ago in Nakhchivan. Armenian soldiers crossed into Azeri mountain villages, before his unit drove them out.

This was one of the many border conflicts that followed a war of demography. But in the years before and after the 1991 independence of both nations, about 30,000 people were killed as hundreds of thousands on both sides fled or were driven to their lands of ethnic majority.

A 1994 ceasefire established the status quo, and the Minsk Group—headed by Russia, France, and the United States—preside over negotiations.

Despite the previous ethnic violence, Azerbaijan boasts that it remains a nation of multicultural tolerance. Of its 10 million population, 96 percent are Muslim—roughly two-thirds Shiite and one-third Sunni. Russian Orthodox represent two-thirds of the Christian population, while over 15,000 Jews date back to the Old Testament era.

Melnikov is part of the 0.26 percent evangelical community. And on behalf of their nation, eight churches and the Azerbaijan Bible Society wrote an open letter to decry the popular conception that this conflict pits Muslims against Christians. (Nearly 700 Armenian soldiers have been killed so far. Azerbaijan does not disclose military casualties.)

“The war which has been between Azerbaijan and Armenia during the last 30 years is purely political confrontation, it has no religious context,” they wrote.

“In fact, this history and [the] continuous attempts of Armenia to present this war as a religious one, can become a stumbling block for many Azerbaijani people, who hear [the] gospel nowadays.” An earlier letter by leaders of Azerbaijan’s Muslim, Jewish, and Russian Orthodox communities…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on October 21, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.

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Turks and Armenians Reconcile in Christ. Can Azeris Join Them?

By Սէրուժ Ուրիշեան (Serouj Ourishian)

Bahri Beytel never thought he would find Turkish food in Armenia.

An ethnic Turk and former Muslim, the pastor of Bethel Church in Istanbul skipped McDonalds and KFC in Yerevan, the capital city, in order to complete a spiritual mission.

Six years ago, prompted to take a journey of reconciliation, he went in search of an authentic Armenian restaurant—and found lahmajun, a flatbread topped with minced meat, vegetables, and spices.

One letter was off from the Turkish spelling. Smiling, he ordered it anyway, in English.

“Are you a Turk?” snapped the owner—in Turkish—after Beytel pronounced it incorrectly. “God spare me from becoming a Turk.”

The owner’s family hailed from Gaziantep, near Turkey’s border with Syria, which before the genocide was a mixed religious city with a thriving Armenian community. Ignoring the insult, the pastor explained he was a Christian, not a Muslim, and had come to ask for forgiveness on behalf of his ancestors.

Up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed between 1914–1923, as the Ottoman Empire crumbled. Once home to many diverse Christian communities, the modern state was built on a secular but ethnic Turkish foundation.

No Turk can be a Christian, the restaurant owner scoffed. He demanded the secret sign made centuries ago by believers in the catacombs.

Beytel drew the fish.

By the end of the conversation, the man gave him a hug, with a tear in his eye.

“If Turkey takes one step, the Armenians are ready to forgive,” said Beytel, of his time at a conference in the Armenian capital. “It was amazing to hear them call me brother.” There was more to come. One year later…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on October 21, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.

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Symbolic Armenian Church Shelled in Clashes with Azerbaijan

Ghazanchetsots (Holy Saviour) Cathedral in the city of Shusha

… The Armenian Foreign Ministry denounced the shelling as a “monstrous crime and a challenge to the civilized humankind,” warning Azerbaijan that targeting religious sites amounts to a war crime.

Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry denied attacking the cathedral, saying its army “doesn’t target historical, cultural and, especially, religious buildings and monuments.”

A priest at the cathedral, who identified himself only as Father Andreas, expressed anguish over the attack.

“I feel the pain that the walls of our beautiful cathedral are destroyed,” he said. “I feel the pain that today the world does not react to what’s happening here and that our boys are dying defending our Motherland.”

Built in 1888, the cathedral suffered significant damage during ethnic violence in 1920. It was restored after fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces in the 1990s and is the Armenian Apostolic Church’s diocesan headquarters in Nagorno-Karabakh, which it calls the Republic of Artsakh.

Standing 115 feet tall, it is understood to be one of the largest Armenian churches in the world.

“They are bombarding our spiritual values,” Artsakh Archbishop Pargev Martirosyan told ArmenPress, equating the incident with ISIS terrorism, “when we are restoring and preserving mosques.”

Located in Shusha, the cathedral is located far from the “line of contact” [about 25 miles] separating the two militaries.

It is also the site of Armenian-rebuilt mosques, with a special place in Azerbaijani history.

“Religion is an important element, but not the only element,” said Mark Movsesian, co-director of the Center for Law and Religion at St. John’s University Law School, during a Philos Project webinar briefing today. “But [this shelling] is hard to interpret except as…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today on October 9, 2020. I contributed additional reporting to the AP. Please click here to read the full text.

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Armenians Fight to Hold Ancient Homeland Within Azerbaijan

Fierce fighting has broken out in the Caucasus mountains between the Caspian and Black seas, pitting Christian Armenians versus Muslim Azeris.

But is it right to employ their religious labels?

“Early Sunday morning [Sept. 27], I received a phone call from our representative in the capital city,” said Harout Nercessian, the Armenia representative for the Armenian Missionary Association of America (AMAA).

“He said they are bombing Stepanakert. It is a war.”

One week later, the fighting continues. At stake is control over the Armenian-majority enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, home to 170,000 people in a Delaware-sized mountainous region within Azerbaijan.

More than 200 people have reportedly died, though Azerbaijan has not released its number of casualties.

Administered by ethnic Armenians ever since a ceasefire was declared in 1994, locals call the region the Republic of Artsakh. Military skirmishes have not been unusual. There have been more than 300 incidents since 2015, according to the International Crisis Group.

This escalation is the most serious since 2016, with Azerbaijani forces attacking multiple positions along the 120-mile “line of contact.”

But the shelling of civilian cities represents a worrisome development.

As does the role of Turkey—and the Syrian militants it allegedly recruited—which has pledged full support for Azerbaijan.

Russia, France, and the United States—partners in the “Minsk Group” which has overseen negotiations between the two nations since 1992—have called for an immediate ceasefire. But Turkey has encouraged Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev’s refusal, conditioning a ceasefire on…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on October 6, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.

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Christians Defend Cultural Heritage in Muslim-Majority Countries

khachkars

This article was first published in the November 2019 print edition of Christianity Today.

Dozens of men with sledgehammers pound slabs of stone in an otherwise empty mountainous field. Filmed in 2005 by the prelate of northern Iran’s Armenian church, Bishop Nshan Topouzian, the clip purports to show the destruction of khachkars, ornately carved headstones from a Christian graveyard, some dating back to the 6th century.

The site is in Nakhchivan, an enclave of primarily Muslim Azerbaijan geographically separated from the country by primarily Christian Armenia. Iran shares its southern border in the ethnically tangled web of states that make up the Central Asian Caucasus. Russia is to the north, Turkey to the west.

The destruction of more than 2,000 khachkars—in addition to 89 churches, 5,480 cross stones, and 22,000 tombstones—has been labeled “the greatest cultural genocide of the 21st century” by Simon Maghakyan, an Armenian American activist and scholar whose research was profiled in the Guardian. He believes the move represents a campaign by the Azerbaijani government to wipe out its Christian heritage.

“The destruction of these khachkars seems to match in scale and tragedy ISIS’ destruction of Palmyra in Syria and the Taliban destruction of the Bamayan statues in Afghanistan,” said Wissam al-Saliby, advocacy officer at the United Nations for the World Evangelical Alliance.

“This issue goes beyond religious freedom. It is the heritage of mankind.”

But Azerbaijan denies Armenians ever lived in Nakhchivan, and cites similar cultural cleansing…

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