Prayers4Peace: Armenia at War, Pt. I

Today, April 24th, is Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, where we stand alongside the Armenian diaspora in remembering the 1915 Armenian Genocide.
We invite you to learn more about Armenia, both past and present, through this piece:

Armenia at War, Pt. I

By: Beth Seversen, Ambassador Warren Clark Fellow, CMEP

Late to the game,  I’ll never forget my introduction to the Armenian-Azerbaijani War. I was living in Eastern Europe for a semester teaching at an international university in the context of Putin’s War with Ukraine. Students sat side by side in classrooms representing 57 countries including Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey, and Iran. The Armenian students in the communications course I was teaching corrected me when I characterized the Armenian-Azerbaijani War as a “border skirmish.” Giving a commemorative speech, a student introduced her childhood friend who paid the ultimate sacrifice in September of 2022 serving on the frontline, countering Azeri military strikes while fighting for freedom and democracy for ethnic Armenians in the sovereign territory of Armenia. 

Perhaps similarly you are newer to the geopolitical arena of the century-old conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. For this reason, Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP) created a three-part mini-series entitled “Armenia at War” which: introduces the historical landscape of Armenia and the significance of the Armenian Apostolic Church for Christianity; traces the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan and the geopolitical actors that influence them; compares the 1915 Genocide of Armenian Christians with the 2023 “soft” physical and cultural genocide; and offers prayers for the 120,000 ethnic Armenians that became displaced and likely disposed. I invite you to delve into part one of the series with me in this brief synopsis, but I also invite you to watch the webinar and share it with your community for discussion.

Part 1: Sustainability, History, and Ongoing Struggle to Protect Heritage and Presence

In the first of the three webinars, the audience hears from panelist John Evans, former Ambassador to Armenia from 2004-2006 and author of Truth Held Hostage: America and the Armenian Genocide: What then? What now? Evans provides a brief overview of Armenia through the lens of Christianity highlighting the historical and theological importance of the Armenia apostolic church. We also hear from panelist Lenna V. Hovanessian who is an activist, attorney, and advocator in local, state, and federal political arenas. Atty. Hovanessian compares the 1915 Armenia Genocide with the current “soft” genocide; she also addresses cultural genocide and ethnic eraser of Armenians residing in Artsakh, alongside the struggle to protect the Christian heritage and presence in Nagorno-Karabakh and ancient Armenia. Rev. Dr. Mae Elise Cannon, executive director of Churches for Middle East Peace, serves as the facilitator. 

Who are the Armenians? Ancient Armenian Christianity

Ambassador Evans highlights the summits of Armenia’s rich contributions to early Christianity. Traceable as an ethnic group since 600 BC, Christian tradition holds that in the first century Bartholomew and Thaddeus, two of Jesus’ disciples, preached the gospel to Armenians. After this, many believed and an underground movement of followers of Jesus Christ organically grew, pulsating with spiritual vitality until 301 A.D. when Gregory the Illuminator persuaded the King of Armenia to adopt Christianity as the official national religion. Thus, Armenia became the first Christian nation in the Roman Empire. Not present at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D., Armenia was engaged in fighting for their identity with Persia. When Armenia lost a major battle with Persia that year, many ethnic Armenians fled to the forest of Artsakh. Since the fifth century, ethnic Armenians have called Artsakh their home. 

Origins of the Current Conflict 

Clashes between Armenian and Turkish nationalism began as early as the 1890s. Envy over education and wealth led to terrible military reprisals. During the 19th century, Armenians traveled to Western Europe and returned enbibed with ideas of democracy and freedom. Additionally, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and many Protestant groups traveled to Armenia during the 19th century for missionary purposes, establishing congregations that fanned the growing unease among Ottoman Turks. Many Christians and Christian denominations lived under Muslim rule as second-class citizens without full citizenship rights, an issue contributing to the underlying factors that led up to the horrific Armenian Genocide of 1915 by the Turks. Teddy Roosevelt coined the Armenian Genocide as the worst crime of the century. 

Ambassador Evans explores reasons as to why Americans were hesitant to make much of the ongoing Azerbaijani discrimination against ethnic Armenians residing in Artsakh. Before 1951, the U.S. acknowledged the Armenian Genocide of 1915 in writing to the Court of the Hauge. As Turkey’s strategic military importance grew, with the Turks joining the NATO Alliance in 1952 and the events during and after the Cold War, an unspoken “taboo” shadowed any mention of Turkey’s war crimes against Armenia until acknowledged by President Biden in 2021. 

Fighting in the second half of the 20th century between ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh (also called Artsakh) and Azerbaijanis resulted in the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Armenians and Azerbaijanis. By the time the fighting ended, Armenians had expanded their territory to control Nagorno-Karabakh. The territory of Nagorno-Karabakh claimed independence in 1992 but was never recognized by the international community. 

Tensions continued to escalate over the last three decades and the second major war in the region occurred in 2021, known as the 44-Day or Second Nagorno-Karabakh War. Ever since then, Azerbaijan controls substantial parts of Nagorno-Karabakh and Russian peacekeeping forces protect the Armenians living in the region. Still, two days of war broke out again in September 2022 along the Armenian border. Violence centered in Nagorno-Karabakh with Azerbaijan reclaiming parts of the area, resulting in 202 Armenian casualties, among them my Armenian student’s childhood friend. 

Summary: What is cultural genocide—in 2023? 

Striking are the similarities in side-by-side images Atty. Lenna V. Hovanessian displays between the 1915 Genocide and the slow “soft” 2023 genocide that ethnic Armenians are living through at the time of this first webinar: the nine-month blockade of the Lachin Corridor closing off all access to water, food, medicine, and travel—slowly starving the Artsakh Armenian community and weakening their resolve. Part of this strategic, slow, deliberate eraser of people’s Armenian ethnic identity includes the destruction of their cultural Christian products and artifacts: the historic ancient holy sites in Nagorno-Karabakh including monuments, churches, cemeteries, and thousands of ancient khachkars (stone crosses). Atty. Hovanessian points out that a growing consensus among Armenians recognizes that the Genocide of 1915 under Ottoman Turks never actually ended but steadily progresses, seeking to erase the historic presence of Armenians in the region. Shifting boundary lines over the last century leave a community of 120,000 independent, mostly Christian ethnic Armenians isolated in the region, surrounded by Azerbaijanis. 

Lenna Hovanessian’s presentation struck an emotional chord as she said, “I feel like parts of me are being erased. I’m becoming invisible.” She explains that the 2021 decisions of the International Court of Justice are completely disregarded, while ethnic Armenian civilians and soldiers are presently being mutilated in full view of the international community, along with the destruction of crosses, monuments, and buildings – repeating the crimes of 106 years ago. “Without intervention by the international community, ethnic Armenians living in Artsakh feel they do not matter, are invisible, and that parts of them are disappearing.” Her words are haunting: “Armenian culture is being destroyed in full view of the world.”

Pray with Us:

Good Heavenly Father, 

We stand in the gap for those Armenians experiencing ethnic and cultural genocide and being caught in the middle of war and conflict. We ask for humanitarian aid to reach those ethnic Armenians fleeing Nagorno-Karabakh. Please provide for their physical needs and for their safety. We ask for a lasting cease-fire, and for the region to remain autonomous, and for a negotiated just peace and end to hostilities and war. We thank you in advance for your merciful intervention. 

In the name of Christ Jesus we pray, Amen.

About the Author: Dr. Beth Seversen is an Ambassador Warren Clark Fellowship scholar with Churches for Middle East Peace. Beth’s PhD is in Intercultural Studies; she is keenly attuned to the multiple narratives of people that lay claim to land and resources, and the colonizing that leaves communities displaced and dispossessed. Beth is passionate in her longing for the Kingdom of God to press further into our broken world restoring marginalized and erased people and contributing to the flourishing of their communities.

Any views or opinions contained herein are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP).

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