Religion is a central factor in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Christian advocates explained in a briefing on the conflict on Friday.
A historic conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan has reignited in recent weeks. The two countries, formerly part of the Soviet Union (USSR), fought a six-year war over the territory from 1988 to 1994 after the fall of the USSR, ending in a ceasefire. The United Nations currently recognizes the territory as part of Azerbaijan, but administered by ethnic Armenians.
“There’s definitely a religious component here,” but it is “not the only thing, obviously,” said Mark Movesian, co-director of the Center for Law and Religion, at a briefing of the Philos Project on Friday on the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. The project is a Christian initiative that promotes positive Christian engagement in the Middle East.
“I don’t see how Christians, wherever they are, wouldn’t see this as relevant to them,” Movesian said.
The largely-Muslim makeup of Azerbaijan and the history of Armenian Christianity cannot be ignored, he said, particularly amid reports that neighboring Turkey is actively exporting Syrian Islamist extremists to Azerbaijan to fight Armenia.
The territory has had an Armenian identity for millennia, and with that a rich Christian history, Movesian said.
The conflict in the majority-Armenian territory in the Caucasus has resulted in hundreds of civilian deaths and thousands displaced and “has potential” to cause a “ripple effect” around the region and the world, said Robert Nicholson, president and executive director of the Philos Project on Friday.
The region has a history of clashes: In 2016 there was a four-day conflict in the area with heavy casualties, recalled Van Der Mergerdichian, an Armenian Philos research fellow, on Friday. Skirmishes in July lasted a few weeks, and the current conflict had lasted for 13 days with lots of sniper fire and gunfire exchanges, he said.
On Oct. 8, militants shelled a cathedral of the Armenian Apostolic Church in the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, destroying part of the roof and damaging the walls of Holy Savior Cathedral in Shusha. Armenians said that Turkish-backed forces from Azerbaijan were behind the attack.
The attack on the cathedral drew condemnation from Christian leaders and religious freedom advocates.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom stated on Thursday that it was “dismayed to learn” of damage to the cathedral, and called for “the safeguarding of places of worship and religious sites.”
The president of the group In Defense of Christians (IDC), Toufic Baaklini, compared the “Turkish-backed” attack to ISIS’ assaults on Christian communities. IDC cited the French government and other official and media sources to say that Turkey is actively recruiting mercenaries to Azerbaijan to fight.
Another historic religious factor in the conflict is the neutrality of Russia and the involvement of Turkey in support of Azerbaijan, experts noted on Friday.
Russia is selling arms to both sides of the conflict, Movesian said, as it is historically Christian but the Russian Orthodox Church has associated with Byzantium, while Armenian Christianity has historic links to the Coptic and Syrian churches of the East.
Meanwhile, Turkish president Recip Erdogan has provided “unconditional support” of Azerbaijan in the conflict, said Armen Sahakyan, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America, western region.
Sahakyan said Erdogan has become has tried to position himself as the leader of the Sunni Muslim world in recent years, noting that, in July, he reconverted the historic cathedral of Hagia Sophia into a mosque - a move that religious freedom advocates warned could effect far-reaching religious and geopolitical consequences.
In his Sept. 27 Angelus, Pope Francis prayed for peace in the region, asking those involved in the conflict “to perform concrete acts of good will and brotherhood that may lead to resolve the problems, not with the use of force and arms, but through dialogue and negotiation.”
The chair of the U.S. bishops’ international justice and peace committee prayed for a stop to the violence on Saturday. Bishop David Malloy of Rockford cited Pope Francis’ new encyclical Fratelli Tutti and called for Americans to pray in solidarity with those affected by the conflict.
“The Caucasus is a far off and little-known region to most Americans. But those who suffer are always close to Our Lord and to those who follow Him,” the bishop said.
Turkey’s involvement in the conflict “fills Armenians with a particular dread,” Movesian said on Friday, as the government has continued to deny that Turkey committed genocide against Armenians in the early 20th century.
Armenians think that if they surrender control of the region, genocide will continue, Movesian said, insisting that Western Christians cannot ignore the conflict.
“It’s a sad thing about Mideast Christians sometimes,” he said, observing that, for Americans, “Mideast Christians are too ‘Mideast’ for the right and too Christian for the left.”