Photo: REUTERS/Irakli Gedenidze

By Donnelly McCleland

As of Tuesday, 26 September, almost 20,000 (of the estimated total of 120,000) ethnic Armenians had fled Azerbaijan’s breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh (the Republic of Artsakh to resident Armenians), in a steady stream, for the safety of neighbouring Armenia. The Azerbaijani military reclaimed full control of the mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh region in a lightning offensive last Tuesday (19 September). Within a day, the Azerbaijani military forced the separatist authorities to agree to lay down their weapons and start talks on Nagorno-Karabakh’s “reintegration” into Azerbaijan after three decades of separatist rule. According to Armenian sources, more than 200 people died during the brief fighting and more than 400 others were injured.  Despite Azerbaijan’s assurances that the rights of ethnic Armenians in the region would be respected if they accepted Azerbaijani citizenship, and that supplies would be restored after a 10-month blockade, many residents fear reprisals and have decided to leave for Armenia. International observers, including the EU, have warned that years of violence combined with fiery racial rhetoric from Azerbaijan’s authoritarian government makes reconciliation more difficult.

The Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) region has a complex history and includes a Christian heritage dating back to early New Testament times. The larger region has, over the centuries, come under the control of Persians, Turks, Russians, Ottomans, and Soviets, and yet the Armenian Church has survived through the centuries, despite frequent and harsh oppression. Though Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) is almost entirely populated by ethnic Armenians (though this was not always so), it is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan. Armenia and Azerbaijan have fought two major wars in the last three decades over Nagorno-Karabakh. In 1989, just before the fall of the Soviet Union, there were 145,593 Armenians (76.4%), 42,871 Azeris (22.4%), and several thousand Kurds, Russians, Greeks, and Assyrians. However, in the aftermath of the heaviest years of fighting in the First Nagorno-Karabakh War (1992-1993), which Armenia won, the entire Azeri and Kurdish population were expelled from the region and seven surrounding districts which were inhabited mostly by an estimated 700,000 Azerbaijanis (Azeris). Two decades of relative stability followed, but in the 2010s that began to change, and in late 2020, the large-scale Second Nagorno-Karabakh War resulted in thousands of casualties and a significant Azerbaijani victory. On 10 November 2020, an armistice was established by a tripartite ceasefire agreement – signed by Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia – resulting in Azerbaijan regaining all of the occupied territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh as well as capturing one-third of Nagorno-Karabakh itself.

After Azerbaijan’s recent victory, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said he expected most of the 120,000 civilians to leave the region for Armenia due to “the danger of ethnic cleansing”, drawing a comparison to the Armenian genocide of 1915 perpetrated by Ottoman forces. Decades of bitter conflict, atrocities, and displacement mean there is no trust and significant animosity between the two sides. Added to this is the wider geopolitical landscape that forms the backdrop to the crisis.

On Monday 25 September, as thousands of Armenians were fleeing, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev met in Azerbaijan’s Nakhchivan exclave (a semi-autonomous region separated from Azerbaijan by Armenian territory).  Mr Erdoğan said Azerbaijan’s victory in Karabakh inspired pride as, “the operation was successfully completed in a short period of time, with utmost sensitivity to the rights of civilians”. The two leaders signed a deal for a gas pipeline, connecting the exclave with Türkiye with which it forms a slim border. Allies Türkiye and Azerbaijan are not the only geopolitical players to weigh in on the recent military takeover of the disputed region. In the aftermath, the Armenian government rowed openly with Russia – its long-time traditional strategic partner – for its “absolute indifference” to Azerbaijani “aggression” against Armenia. Russia responded by saying Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan had only himself to blame for Azerbaijan’s victory over Karabakh because he had insisted on seeking to work with the West rather than working with Moscow and Baku for peace. In the decades-long conflict, the EU, US, Israel, and Türkiye have all profited from weapon sales to Azerbaijan; and Russia profited from selling arms to both sides. Azerbaijan’s victory in 2020 was largely due to the technological advantage it gained from all those foreign arms purchases. In addition, Azerbaijan’s oil reserves have also played a pivotal role in securing support particularly from the EU and Israel.

Despite the obvious global power influences, the sectarian conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan is often framed in religious terms – Christian-majority Armenia versus Muslim-majority Azerbaijan. Armenia, which adopted Christianity as its state religion in the early 300s AD, is the world’s first Christian nation-state. Tradition holds that the apostles Thaddeus and Bartholomew preached there in the first century. About 98% of Armenians in Artsakh belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church, an Eastern Christian denomination in communion with other Orthodox churches, while about 0.37% identify as Evangelical. In contrast, Azerbaijan is a Muslim-majority nation where 85.9% are professing Shia Muslims, while only 2.53% call themselves Christian (with approximately 0.22% Evangelical). In a Christianity Today article from February/March 2022, journalist Jayson Casper asks the question: “How, if at all, they [Christians on both sides of the conflict] will reconcile their intense differences?” If this kind of question was being asked after the second war, what questions will be asked now, after what appears to be the ultimate defeat? Although the number of Armenian Christians outnumbers Azerbaijani Christians, the fact remains that there are followers of Christ on both sides of this bloody and prolonged conflict. Can Christians, filled by the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, not find a unity in Christ that transcends geopolitical differences and historical atrocities? And, if they can find such a divine unity, should they wait for their governments to make peace, or should they not themselves start by making peace with fellow believers behind ‘enemy lines’? No one would consider this an easy task at all, but most would agree that it could be highly impactful and could go a long way to demonstrating a vastly different spirit – one of forgiveness and reconciliation, as opposed to that of the world – one of vengeance and retribution.

An Armenian pastor shared with INcontext that many Armenian believers are fearful since Azerbaijan’s decisive retaking of Nagorno-Karabakh – they don’t know what it could mean for Armenia, what the future holds and whether Azerbaijan and their ally, Turkey, might want to take more ground from Armenia. There is a spirit of fear and uncertainty. This is causing some people to blame God and question Him as to why He is allowing this. However, it is also causing a lot of people to turn to God, and more are becoming open to accepting Christ as their Saviour, not simply knowing about Him through cultural and historical influence. This is like other war situations, and one thinks of the advancing of the Kingdom currently taking place in Ukraine. The pastor went on to explain that his preaching is encouraging people not to look to worldly solutions, to other countries, whether the West or Russia, but rather to God. He emphasises to his congregation and other believers that the Church should not be distracted by all these matters but should rather remain focussed on their work. He is convinced that Armenia has a responsibility to share the Good News, particularly with their neighbours – Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Iran. They should not let these matters distract them from reaching these nations with the Gospel.

Please join us in prayer for the following:

  • For God’s protection over Armenia and its people, that the situation will not escalate into war
  • For Azerbaijani authorities and military assuming control of the region to treat inhabitants humanely and fairly
  • For the Lord to bring revival to the Armenian Church and that they will fulfil their calling to reach their neighbours with the saving Gospel of Christ