Apprehension and hope follow ceasefire in Armenian enclave

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ceasefire in Armenian enclave
Damaged residential buildings and cars are seen following the Sept. 19, 2023, launch of a military operation by Azerbaijani armed forces in the city of Stepanakert in Nagorno-Karabakh. A ceasefire was declared Sept. 20 in the region, which is a historic Armenian enclave located in southwestern Azerbaijan and internationally recognized as part of that nation. (OSV News photo/Siranush Sargsyan, PAN Photo via Reuters)

(OSV News) — An Armenian Catholic bishop told OSV News he hopes that “history will not repeat itself” following a Sept. 20 ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Azerbaijan’s troops launched a Sept. 19 offensive in the historic Armenian enclave (known in Armenian by its ancient name, Artsakh), located in southwestern Azerbaijan and internationally recognized as part of that nation.

The attacks, which Azerbaijani forces called an “anti-terror” operation, killed at least 32 people, including seven civilians, and wounded another 200. Protests against the attacks broke out in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, and in Los Angeles, home to the world’s largest Armenian population outside of that nation.

Russian-brokered ceasefire

As part of the Russian-brokered ceasefire, Nagorno-Karabakh forces have acceded to Azerbaijan’s demands for complete disarmament.

Russia, which has peacekeeping forces in the region, said it had evacuated some 2,000 villagers since the Sept. 19 offensive. Despite the ceasefire, explosions and additional clashes have been reported.

“The ceasefire is what we were asking for, but I hope that Russia and Azerbaijan will keep their promise that the Artsakh Armenians will live in peace on their ancestral lands with the full rights of free citizens,” Bishop Mikael A. Mouradian of the California-based Armenian Catholic Eparchy of Our Lady of Nareg told OSV News.

The eparchy is part of the Armenian Catholic Church, one of the 24 self-governing churches in communion with Pope Francis, head of the Latin Church, that together constitute the worldwide Catholic Church.

Bishop Mouradian pointed to “what happened with the Armenians that were living in Nakhchivan who were forced to leave their homes.”

Erasure of Armenians

According to Cornell University’s Caucasus Heritage Watch, Azerbaijan has long conducted a policy of “silent and systematic cultural erasure” of Armenians in Nakhchivan, an autonomous republic in Azerbaijan, destroying at least 108 medieval and early modern monasteries, churches and cemeteries — 98% of Armenian cultural heritage sites — from 1997 to 2011 alone.

“Nowadays not only are there no more Armenians, but also all the Armenian monuments were destroyed by the Azerbaijani government,” said Bishop Mouradian.

On Sept. 19, Bishop Mouradian told OSV News the situation was “very dire,” with “Azerbaijan military forces … bombing with heavy shells the capital of Artsakh (Stepanakert) and all the surrounding villages … (and) a large land attack on the peaceful residences of Artsakh to force them and push them out of Artsakh.”

“Parents don’t know where their children are — children lost their parents in the chaos of the bombing,” he said, describing Azerbaijan’s “large-scale military operation” as an effort “to eradicate the Artsakh Armenians from their homeland.”

Ending nine-month-long blockade

The Sept. 19 attack and subsequent ceasefire followed Azerbaijan’s nine-month-long blockade of the three-mile Lachin Corridor, the only road leading from Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh. The blockade deprived the enclave’s 120,000 ethnic Armenians of food, baby formula, oil, medication, hygienic products and fuel.

In a Sept. 7 statement, Bishop David J. Malloy of Rockford, Illinois, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace, had called for a peaceful end to the blockade, which left the ethnic Armenian Christians at risk of what experts called “genocide by starvation.”

Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., a Catholic lawmaker who for the past decade has spoken out against human rights abuses under Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev — chaired a Sept. 6 emergency congressional hearing on the blockade and announced plans to introduce a bill called the “Nagorno-Karabakh Human Rights Act.”

During the same session, expert witness Luis Moreno-Ocampo, who served as the first chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court from 2003-2012, reiterated his conclusions from his Aug. 7 report, stating that the blockade violated Article II(c) of the 1948 Genocide Convention — to which the U.S. is a signatory — by “creating conditions to destroy people.”

Previously, Bishop Mouradian told OSV News that “Armenians have been living on that land (Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh) for more than 3,000 years.” He said, “There are a lot of churches there from the fourth, eighth, 10th centuries. It’s not a new thing for Armenians.”

Armenia, ancient home to Christianity

Armenia was the first nation to officially adopt Christianity in 301, having been evangelized by the Apostles Thaddeus and Bartholomew between A.D. 40 and 60.

Both Christian Armenians and Turkic Azeris lived for centuries in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, which became part of the Russian Empire during the 19th century. After World War I, the region became an autonomous part of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan.

Nagorno-Karabakh declared itself independent in 1991 after the fall of the Soviet Union, and quickly became the focus of a 1992-1994 struggle between Armenia and Azerbaijan for control of the region, with some 30,000 killed and more than 1 million displaced. Russia brokered a 1994 ceasefire, and in a 2017 referendum, voters approved a new constitution and a change in name to the Republic of Artsakh (although “Nagorno Karabakh Republic” also remains an official name).

A second war broke out in 2020 when Azerbaijan launched an offensive to reclaim territory, with 3,000 Azerbaijani soldiers and 4,000 Armenian soldiers killed. Russian peacekeepers were stationed to monitor a renewed ceasefire and to guard the Lachin Corridor, but fighting erupted again in 2022.

Bishop Mouradain previously told OSV News the recent blockade revived the specter of the 1915-1916 Armenian genocide, when up to 1.2 million Armenians were slaughtered and starved to death under the Ottoman Empire. The atrocities were the basis for lawyer Raphael Lemkin’s development of the term “genocide.”

Bishop Mouradain’s own grandparents fled the Ottoman attacks, resettling in Lebanon, where the bishop as a child witnessed that nation’s civil war.

“Our sole refuge now is God,” said Bishop Mouradian of the current situation in Nagorno-Karabakh. “At the end of the day, it’s the poor people who are paying the price.”

Gina Christian

Gina Christian is a National Reporter for OSV News.