Armenia: When ‘Cancel Culture’ Means Canceling a Culture

What exactly is at the heart of the most recent troubles in Armenia?

Armenian soldiers pray on Nov. 1 in the damaged Ghazanchetsots Cathedral in the historic city of Shusha.
Armenian soldiers pray on Nov. 1 in the damaged Ghazanchetsots Cathedral in the historic city of Shusha. (photo: KAREN MINASYAN / AFP via Getty Images)

In more than two decades of teaching Church history, whenever I ask my students who are the earliest Christians or which is the first nation to have adopted Christianity as its official religion, the answers range from the Middle East to Rome and Constantinople.

Few of them know much about Armenia and the ancient Christian history of this land, where Christianity was established in the first centuries. Very few realize that Armenians are among the first to have embraced Christianity, as Sozomen wrote in his Ecclesiastical History (AD 440), the first Church history written.

Armenia has been making headlines since the eruption of conflict in September, when Azerbaijan (supported by Turkey) attacked Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh in Armenia.

What exactly is at the heart of the conflict?

The mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh, which geographically connects Europe to Asia, is the contested region between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Armenians have been living in the area for two millennia.

In 1920 both Armenia and Azerbaijan were incorporated into the Soviet Union. A year later, in 1921, Josef Stalin assigned the Nagorno-Karabakh region to Azerbaijan, making it an autonomous region of Soviet Azerbaijan. At that time, Armenians made up over 90% of the population living in Soviet Azerbaijan.

The Bolsheviks aimed at balancing power and influence among diverse ethnic and religious groups throughout the Soviet Union. Consequently, Azeris were forcibly settled in the region with the focus of de-Armenizing Nagorno-Karabakh — an effort that was successful, as the Armenian population percentage fell from 90 to 75%.

During 1987–88, Mikhail Gorbachev’s Perestroika, Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh started requests for independence from Soviet Azerbaijan and to be united with Soviet Armenia. The conflict between Armenians and Azaris turned into a war after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1989, which resulted in Nagorno-Karabakh voting for independence from Azerbaijan.

Once liberated from the Soviet Union, Armenia and Azerbaijan entered a two-year-war over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. By the end of that war, Armenia was successful and controlled Artsakh. However, 1994 peace talks failed to produce a peace treaty among Armenia, Azerbaijan and Artsakh, and the status of the contested region of Artsakh was uncertain until the recent belligerent events which ended in defeat for Armenia.

On Nov. 10, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia signed an agreement to end the conflict, to the detriment of Armenia. Part of Artsakh will go to Azerbaijan, meaning an eviction of Armenians from their lands and a high risk of “forever erasing the Armenian culture from the area,” as a group of 42 European scholars of Armenia wrote in an appeal to the Italian government, drawing clear parallels between the 1915 and 2020 genocides against Armenians and what is currently happening.

Armenians are setting fire to their property before being evicted from their ethnic villages. It is a catastrophe reminiscent of the Masada mass suicides of the Jews to avoid being enslaved by the Romans, as described by the Jewish historian Josephus (Book VII).

The Armenian Supreme Spiritual Council convened under the Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians Karekin II explains Armenia’s loss of part of Artsakh in a Nov. 16 statement:

“In the conditions of the hostilities unleashed against Artsakh by the international terrorists, Azerbaijan and Turkey… We are particularly saddened by the witnesses of our centuries-old identity to be abandoned in the areas to be handed over: the chapels, churches and monasteries, castles, historical and cultural monuments and museums. We call on the relevant state bodies, the Diaspora forces; in consultation with the Armenian Church; to make every effort to save them from further destruction from the anti-Armenian policy of Azerbaijan.”

The Armenian Catholicos calls out “terrorists” and laments the annihilation of Armenians and Armenian Christian identity that is occurring in this historic Christian place.

Why is Erdogan’s Turkey involved in the conflict? Tayyip Erdogan has been actively engaged in the Middle East crisis. Though Artsakh, Turkey is leaving its mark on the Caucasus. Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan is obvious in material and human supplies, technological aid, and jihadist militants or “international terrorists” serving as Erdogan’s mercenaries in the area. Azerbaijanis are brother Muslims although they are Shiites.

But religion is not the only point of unity between Turkey and Azerbaijan. Both Turkey and Azerbaijan are the only countries to deny the genocide of Armenians during 1915-16 by the Ottoman Turks. A new extermination of Armenians and Armenian Christianity is in the making in Artsakh, with the destruction of medieval tombstones of Djulfa (Julfan) and the bombardment of Ghazanchetsots Cathedral in Shushi on Oct. 8.

Erdogan and his government have been actively engaged in every scenario in the Middle Eastern crisis, from Syria to Libya and the Caucasus. Erdogan has embraced a revivalist-expansionist platform of the Ottoman legacy. The recent conversion of Hagia Sophia from museum to mosque is part of the platform to change Turkey and build up the Old Ottoman Empire influence, including in the Holy Land. On Oct. 1, Erdogan in a tweet declared that “Jerusalem is our city, a city from us. We consider it an honor on behalf of our country and nation to express the rights of the oppressed Palestinian people on every platform, with whom we have lived for centuries.”

Erdogan’s program of cancel culture, and canceling religious sites, is accompanied by his lavish international appetite for building mosques from Albania to Azerbaijan to Russia, Germany, England, Switzerland, the United States and elsewhere.

Pope Francis recognized the genocide of the Armenians during his apostolic visit to Armenia in 2016, saying, “That tragedy, that genocide, was the first of the deplorable series of catastrophes of the past century, made possible by twisted racial, ideological or religious aims that darkened the minds of the tormentors even to the point of planning the annihilation of entire peoples. It is so sad that — in this as in the others two — the great powers looked the other way.”

Cultural-religious destruction, a cancel culture in action, is taking place right before our eyes. Armenia and Armenians are the victims, while the West does not seem particularly interested in the plight of Christians. As Pope Francis rightly said, the great powers are still looking the other way.