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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

Embed from Getty Images

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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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.