Don’t Forget the Armenia Refugees of Artsakh

In September, the Islamic nation of Azerbaijan invaded its neighbor Armenia.

Father Shahe Hayrapetyan (second from left) leads the Divine Liturgy for the Nagorny Karabakh refugees at the Saint-Sargis vicarial church as part of the nationwide prayer for Artsakh day in Yerevan on Oct. 1, 2023.
Father Shahe Hayrapetyan (second from left) leads the Divine Liturgy for the Nagorny Karabakh refugees at the Saint-Sargis vicarial church as part of the nationwide prayer for Artsakh day in Yerevan on Oct. 1, 2023. (photo: Alain Jocard / AFP via Getty Images)

Living in the constant motion of a 24/7 news cycle inevitably pushes certain headlines off the front page. In recent months, that has been the plight of tens of thousands of Armenia refugees flung out of the Nagorno-Karabakh region. In September, neighboring Azerbaijan, an Islamic nation, invaded Armenia and blockaded what Armenians call Artsakh. The region has been a locus of ongoing conflict since the fall of the Soviet Union, but events took a significant turn with the 2023 Azerbaijan offensive.

The result was a massive upheaval for those who call Artsakh home. Since then, fleeing Armenians — the vast majority of whom are Christian — have endured the constant threat of danger and the deprivation that followed.

American diplomat Sam Brownback, a Catholic, called the invasion and offensive a “religious cleansing” against Armenian Christians.

About 90% of the Armenian population as a whole is Christian, according to the U.S. State Department, most of whom are Orthodox, and fewer than 10% Catholic. Armenians proudly call their homeland “the first Christian nation,” referring to King Tiridates III proclaiming Christianity the official religion of the Kingdom of Armenia at the beginning of the fourth century. The Armenian Apostolic Church’s Etchmiadzin Cathedral is frequently cited as the oldest Christian church in the world. Pope Francis visited the historic site in 2016.

When Pope St. John Paul II traveled to Armenia in September 2001 to commemorate the 1,700th anniversary of Christianity in Armenia, he said, “A striking feature of this land are the many crosses in the form of the khachkar, testifying to your steadfast fidelity to the Christian faith.” A khachkar is a specifically Armenian artistic representation of the cross, typically as a free-standing stone monument.

Azerbaijan has routinely led pogroms of destruction against the khachkar over the decades.

There is a tradition in the Armenian Apostolic Church that St. Jude Thaddeus — with St. Bartholomew — evangelized the region, and was eventually martyred in Armenia. This patron saint of impossible causes is thus revered in both Western and Eastern Christianity. In fact, Louis Boettiger’s Armenian Legends and Festivals (1920) chronicles the tale of King Abgar of Edessa, whose kingdom reached modern-day Armenia, and his encounter with the image of Christ “not made by human hands,” delivered to him, the story says, by Jude Thaddeus.

The human catastrophes that have befallen Armenia in recent history, namely the Armenian Genocide and into our own time with the Nagorno-Karabakh Wars — which not a few Armenians view as related events in a longstanding struggle against Turkey — thus take on a sense of urgency for all Christians around the world as their fellow brethren suffer. These days, the urgency is quite palpable: the government of Artsakh agreed to dissolve at the beginning of 2024, forcing ethnic Armenians to seek a new homeland elsewhere with little time to spare.

Little Armenia is a community in East Hollywood named after the Armenians who fled their home in diaspora. The city of Glendale is the nexus for the Armenian population; the Greater Los Angeles area is home to the largest population of Armenians outside Armenia. John Semerdjian, an Armenian-American from the San Pedro area of Los Angeles, is concerned not only with the plight of Armenian refugees slipping from the attention of the general populace, but also that the news media itself has not accurately reported what has transpired in Artsakh.

“I don’t think the news showed what was happening in Armenia,” he told me. “A lot of the news coming from there was blocked from being shown here.” When Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, Semerdjian noticed a distinct shift in the world’s attention. “It’s really sad what’s happening now in Gaza and Israel,” he said. “But imagine all that happening and no one knowing about it. That’s what it felt like regarding Armenia the last few years.”

Semerdjian felt compelled to take action as refugees sought help. “Some people reached out to me to help families with kids living in their cars to get situated for a few months with a place to stay and food to eat.” So through the OKNi Foundation, a charity platform, Semerdjian launched a fundraiser “to extend a helping hand to displaced families as they embark on the courageous journey of rebuilding their lives.”

In 2015, Pope Francis declared St. Gregory of Narek a Doctor of the Church. Venerated as a saint in both the Catholic Church and Armenian Apostolic Church, Francis quoted Gregory, whom he called “the word and voice of Armenia,” during his visit in 2016: “The light of God’s mercy is never clouded by the shadow of indignation.”

Today, there are fellow Christians spurned from their home, forced to wander a dangerous world, hinging their hope on the mercy of God, asking, like God in the Garden:

Adam, who are you? I no longer recognize you.
Who are you, O man?
What have you become?
Of what horror have you been capable?
What made you fall to such depths?
Pope Francis in Jerusalem, Yad Vashem Memorial, 2014