“I would say being a Christian in Armenia today is being on the Cross, feeling the physical and emotional torture of the crucifixion. And, more painfully, the abandonment by fellow Christians around the world.”
Hratch Tchilingirian, an associate faculty member at the University of Oxford, specialising in the Armenian Church, echoes in those words the sentiment of many Armenians, who felt that the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan this autumn was largely ignored by the West as no one offered help against the power of Russia and Turkey who were supporting Azerbaijan.
Armenia is on the border with Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran and Turkey. It used to be part of the Soviet Union and gained its independence in 1991. However, in recent weeks, the Christian community who live in the semi-autonomous region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is separate from the rest of Armenia, have had to leave their homes and have seen their churches attacked as the land is reclaimed by Azerbaijan after a six-week war that has killed hundreds, if not thousands, of family members on both sides.
Bishop Hovakim, the bishop of the Diocese of Armenia in the UK got back from Nagorno-Karabakh last weekend and told Premier: “We can’t find the bodies of the fallen soldiers because they’ve been burned. I don’t want to describe what had happened actually, they used prohibited cluster bombs against us during the war, they even hit a maternity hospital. They hit other hospitals, they hit civilian infrastructure. So, a lot happened but also they use these bombs, chemical bombs,” he claims.
A woman called Knarik Saribekyan, who works for a Christian charity in Yerevan – the capital of Armenia where a lot people are heading – says she is dealing with a lot of psychological distress: “It’s pretty painful. I had a chance to talk to a woman who lost three of her sons in the war. And her mother-in-law was slaughtered in the garden.”
Nagorno-Karabakh has been fought over before. In the 1990s, the Armenians won and many Azeris were displaced. However, Armenians claim it is their historical homeland; many worship in ancient apostolic churches and say it is the first state in the world to adopt Christianity.
For Christians in Armenia, this history only adds to the trauma of being told to leave. In the last fortnight they have been burning their homes rather than have the opposition live in them and taking dead bodies with them in vans. Armenians have also been accused of vandalism and the destruction of Azerbaijan’s cultural sites, as well as leaving prosperous towns to ruin in the years they have been there.
Before the ceasefire the war was brutal though. Briony Krikorian-Slade, a British-Armenian, was following it from the UK: “I had my second child two months ago and at one point during the conflict a maternity hospital was hit. I just thought…the idea of being in a maternity hospital, being bombed, just so horrific and the idea that new life, God’s miraculous new life, would be threatened…that’s just awful.”
Tim Loughton, a Conservative MP, is the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Armenia. He says the violence has been documented: “It’s estimated there are some 150 civilian fatalities but many thousands of military fatalities on both sides, many thousands unaccounted for. There’s an undisclosed number of prisoners on both sides, many of whom have not had access to the International Red Cross and other agencies. There are stories of torture and of summary executions.
“People who are now being forced to move out of the occupied areas are fleeing back into Armenia, with just days to clear up all their possessions and leave. There are just great queues of vehicles and people and a queue of human misery, just streaming out of parts of Nagorno-Karabakh.”
With the Armenians going in one direction, Azerbaijan – supported by Russia and Turkey – is now moving into these deserted villages, with some of them returning after nearly 30 years. Some of the Armenians plan to return one day, others don’t know where they’re going.
Knarik Saribekyan, who works with refugees says: “I asked a couple of people ‘What are your plans?’ and they certainly don’t have a clue. They may just try to live in Armenia in different cities and buildings. Some of them may go back to the Nagorno-Karabakh region, but to other cities and villages that are still not under Azerbaijani rule.”
Many Armenian Christians are worried about what will happen to their churches. The President of Azerbaijan says he will protect them. Bishop Hovakim doesn’t believe him:
“The President of Azerbaijan can say anything but they have to build a trust. There is no trust. Because one thing he says, but at the same time, they destroyed two churches.”
Hratch Tchilingirian, an academic at the University of Oxford on the Armenian Church , says although the crimes have been atrocious, the lack of response by the rest of the world is almost more shocking: “I would say today Armenians feel abandoned, abandoned by the Christian communities around the world, their fellow believers in the resurrection. The silence of Christian communities around the world has been louder than their action.”
British-Armenian Briony Krikorian-Slade adds that because there are more Armenians living abroad than in the country itself, the disinterest stings even more: “Many Armenians feel that the countries they lived in as diaspora, or Western countries, have turned their back on the conflict. It was going on for 40 days and had very little coverage in the Western media, partly because of Covid, partly because of US elections and other elements. So, there’s a real sense of spiritual despair.”
Bishop Hovakim agrees: “We have a feeling that we were left alone in our struggle, because we were struggling for our rights to live in our historical lands, we were not aggressors, we were not attacking. To our people, we didn’t start the war. We were just defending ourselves and if we feel that we are left alone.”
With many towns and villages now empty of Armenians, has the UK missed the boat?
Tim Loughton doesn’t think so: “It’s absolutely not too late. We must put as much pressure as possible on government and government ministers working with other governments from the West, and bringing up the subject in the United Nations to make sure that proper conventions and are followed in terms of prisoners of war and displacement of people.
“We we are seeing ethnic cleansing and that is an international crime. That needs to be properly monitored and at the moment it’s being monitored only by Turkey and Russia, who are obviously rather partial.”
Knarik, the charity worker in Yeravan, has the same plea: “I would love to ask the British citizens not to be indifferent…I know that the UK has a lot of power to intervene so at least those Christians in power may be able to do something.”
Bishop Hovakim added: “Let us pray that this peace will be sustainable, then our leaders can come to a sustainable and amicable solution.”