Trapped Armenian Christians Deserve Global Attention
A NOTE FROM THE PUBLISHER: In addition to the immediate humanitarian concern caused by an inhumane blockade, important historical, cultural and religious-freedom issues are at stake.
There aren’t many humanitarian crises in the world that can be solved in five minutes, but the desperate situation unfolding in Nagorno-Karabakh, one of the world’s oldest Christian enclaves, may be one of them.
Few Americans have ever heard of Nagorno-Karabakh, called Artsakh by the Armenians, a landlocked territory set in the rugged Caucasus Mountains that separate Eastern Europe from Western Asia, but that may change soon. That’s because the suffering caused by an inhumane blockade that’s preventing food, fuel, medicine and other necessities from reaching its 120,000 inhabitants — a population roughly the size of Hartford, Connecticut — is becoming difficult for world leaders and the international media to ignore.
As is often the case in the Caucasus region, this latest crisis has a long history, stemming from a bitter rivalry between predominantly Christian Armenia and predominantly Muslim Azerbaijan and complex geopolitical factors in play. Azerbaijan, for example, has close ties to Turkey, which as a member of NATO is an important, if not always reliable, U.S. ally. Another sensitive issue is the presence on the scene of thousands of peacekeeping troops from Russia, which brokered a cease-fire between the two former Soviet republics after a war broke out in the enclave in 2020.
Setting those complications aside for the moment, the present situation boils down to three points: First, Nagorno-Karabakh, though internationally recognized to be part of Azerbaijan, is populated by ethnic Armenian Christians and is heavily dependent on Armenia for all sorts of vital goods. Second, those goods flow from Armenia into Nagorno-Karabakh along a single trade route, called the Lachin Corridor. And, third, Azerbaijan has shut down that road, preventing anything or anyone from going in or out.
The solution is simple: Azerbaijan needs to open the road. Unfortunately, there is no indication it will do that anytime soon.
Azerbaijan set up its blockade in December, on the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe to be exact, citing security and environmental concerns. For a while, Red Cross vehicles were allowed to pass through, but since July the road has been sealed tight. This means that the people of Nagorno-Karabakh are effectively under siege.
“The blockade of the Lachin Corridor is a humanitarian emergency that has created severe shortages of essential food staples including sunflower oil, fish, chicken, dairy products, cereal, sugar and baby formula,” United Nations experts recently warned. Hospitals are running short on medicine and supplies and there’s not enough fuel for ambulances to transport people needing medical care.
The former International Criminal Court chief prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo has described the blockade as a potential “genocide” of Karabakh Armenians, a description that evokes the bitter legacy of the genocide of 1.5 million Armenians in the early 20th century at the end of the Ottoman Empire.
Azerbaijan vehemently disputes that characterization and says it’s ready to transport aid through a nearby Azerbaijani town. But the Armenian Christians in the enclave are so distrustful of Azerbaijan that they say they won’t accept it. Meanwhile, a convoy of trucks loaded with tons of food and supplies waits on the Armenia side of the blockaded road. That’s where things stand for the moment.
Why should Catholics care about this?
Besides the obvious humanitarian concerns, there are important historical, cultural and religious-freedom issues at stake.
Many Catholics aren’t aware that Armenia was the first nation to adopt Christianity as its official religion, in A.D. 301, a little over a decade before Constantine’s Edict of Milan. The “Apostle to the Armenians” was St. Gregory. Known as “the Illuminator,” Gregory was a member of the royal court of Armenia’s ruler, Tiridates, and was imprisoned and tortured for refusing the royal command to worship idols.
In a story reminiscent of the biblical account of Daniel, Gregory wound up becoming the one who ultimately convinced the king to convert from Zoroastrianism to Christianity. The entire kingdom, which included Nagorno-Karabakh at the time, quickly followed suit.
Today, more than 1,700 years later, most Armenians are members of the Armenian Apostolic Church, one of the world’s oldest Christian churches. It was the antiquity of the Christian faith in the Caucasus and a desire to promote peace and interreligious dialogue that prompted Pope Francis in 2016 to visit all three nations in the region — Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. Upon his return, the Pope emphasized the need for the Church to accompany these nations in their current difficulties “in communion with the other Churches and Christian communities, and in dialogue with other religious communities, in the certainty that God is the Father of all and that we are all brothers and sisters.”
It’s even more urgent now, for the sake of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh, that leaders in the region and around the world heed the Holy Father’s words. While it will surely take intensive diplomatic efforts to fully resolve the status of the enclave, which broke away from Azerbaijan to create the so-called Republic of Artsakh in the early 1990s, ending the blockade would be a critical and sensible first step.
Members of the Armenian diaspora, especially here in the United States, recognize the need to quickly raise awareness about what’s happening in this little-known place, using unorthodox means, if necessary.
On Aug. 10, several hundred protesters blocked one side of the 134 Freeway in Glendale, California, using a tractor-trailer, to call attention to the crisis. They unfurled signs calling for U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, whose district includes Glendale, to do more to help, and the Democratic congressman promptly issued a statement pledging to do just that. There may be more peaceful but high-profile demonstrations in the days to come.
Time is of the essence. Schiff and his colleagues on both sides of the aisle need to act, as does the Biden administration. So, too, does Russia, which is so absorbed by its calamitous invasion of Ukraine that it seems to have forgotten that its peacekeepers are supposed to make sure the corridor into Nagorno-Karabakh remains open, under the terms of the cease-fire it brokered.
The Holy See, also, should speak out forcefully in defense of the Armenian Christians. Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin deserves praise for quietly visiting with leaders of both Armenia and Azerbaijan in July, a peace mission that drew little attention and no mention by the Vatican or its in-house media outlet.
In the meantime, all people of goodwill can add their voices to a growing grassroots campaign to end this injustice. I ask you to please keep the people of this beautiful but beleaguered region of the world in your prayers.
May God bless you!