Artsakh: The Final Days of a Christian Community
Nagorno Karabakh, a tiny Christian enclave locally known as Artsakh, was located for many years in the shadow of Azerbaijan — Ilham Aliyev’s Islamist regime. Despite its location, however, Artsakh’s little community of Armenian Orthodox believers always viewed itself as part of historical Armenia.
In 2004, I had the pleasure of spending a couple of weeks in Artsakh. While visiting with the local Christians there, I enjoyed dinners hosted by local leaders, attended the baptism of a newborn, and especially enjoyed an enlightening conversation with an Armenian Orthodox archbishop.
At the time, I learned that the little Christian community had found itself caught in a sizeable controversy following the demise of the Soviet Union. The first Nagorno-Karabakh conflict continued from 1988 to 1994. Artsakh identified itself as Armenian territory, despite ongoing disputes with its northern neighbor Azerbaijan. Struggles recurred until, beginning in December 2022, Artsakh came under siege by an Azeri blockade. At the time, the world largely ignored a prolonged assault on Artsakh’s 120,000 Christian souls.
During the Artsakh blockade, access to food and medicine were cut off, while public utilities —including electricity, internet, and gas — were either shut down or damaged. At the same time Azeris obstructed the Lachin Corridor, the primary roadway between Artsakh and Armenia. Emergency vehicles and humanitarian aid deliveries were barricaded for more than nine months.
Eventually, in September 2023, Artsakh’s remaining 100,000 Armenian Christians were driven out of their homeland. Azeri President Ilham Aliyev — close ally and confidante of Turkey’s neo-Ottoman leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan — was responsible for this expulsion.
It is worth noting that Armenia was the world’s first Christian nation, declared as such in the year 301 A.D. The phrase “ethnic cleansing” has been repeatedly used to describe the plight of Artsakh’s Christian believers. But few major news sources have taken note of the religious persecution that fueled the Azeri blockage.
Finally, on September 28, 2023, the president of Artsakh, Samvel Shahramanyan controversially signed a decree to dissolve all state institutions by January 1, 2024, formally bringing the existence of the so-called “breakaway state” to an end.
The panicked departure of more than 100,000 Christians followed, and thanks to our friend Anna Grigoryan, we’ve been able to collect accounts of four courageous women who were driven out of Artsakh with their children. Following are separate accounts of their final and painful departure from Artsakh and the huge ordeal of trying to begin new lives in Armenia.
Anahit M. writes, “On September 25 an explosion occurred where my nephew, Aram, was killed. Rushing to the hospital we saw hundreds of people severely injured. He suffered severe burns from the fire and later died at the hospital. Many others passed away. That day we lost a precious part of our lives … he was only 25. Meanwhile, we were forced to leave our city of Stepanakert. Although I deal with this pain every day, I still hope and believe that one day we will go back to Artsakh.”
Margarita explains, “We lived in our beloved Artsakh for 20 years. However, we were betrayed by our government. Sadly, we had to evacuate from there when the war began. I was a proud mother; my son served in the military for 16 months until we all had to flee from our city. I couldn’t bear leaving my son to die, so we took off with him. At this time, I can only put my hope on Jesus Christ, because He’s the only one that can change this situation.”
Sharmagh recalls, “I lived my whole life in Artsakh, working as a nurse for 12 years in the ER of the Stepanakert hospital. The 2020 war was brutal, and we lost many close ones. Then, after the war we came under total blockade for nine months. Facing hunger, we were disappointed [by] the whole world, yet still hoping for the best. But suddenly, on September 19, 2023, the war started, and we had to evacuate. It’s impossible to describe what we went through. People from all the villages and cities were gathered in the city of Stepanakert, on the streets. Suddenly the Azeris started to bombard Stepanakert and the villages surrounding it. After just one day of war, we were told to evacuate from our home, and for now we live in Yerevan. But we don’t lose our hope that one day we will return to out motherland.”
Roxanne remembers, “The morning of September 19 was dark and cold when I sent my daughter to school. Owing to the blockade, there was no food. I had to wait in a long line to get overpriced fruit, so my kids can eat that day. Coming back, I heard bombings. and was quickly debating on running home to my six-year-old or getting my daughter from school. … We heard explosions all night, had no food or water, just constant fear and putting our hands to our ears to not hear the sounds outside. After 24 hours there were no more bombings, but they ordered us to flee from our homes. I couldn’t even pack all the necessities because my mind was burdened with other thoughts.”
“We were told to be mindful of what to bring,” she continued, “so I only brought the documents [and] warm clothes for me and my kids. I only had two loaves of bread and one bottle of water, so each hour I broke a piece of the bread and gave it to my son with a little bit of water. Reuniting once again with my family, dirty, hungry, and lost, having no close friends in Armenia, we took the bus to a village far away from the border called Bazum, and later we moved to the city of Kirovakan. The Armenians were very kind to us, fed us, bathed us, and gave us a temporary place to stay. Every day, I grieve about how I left my husband’s grave and didn’t even bring a little soil from there.”
Today, more than 100,000 Armenian refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh are struggling to begin new lives in Armenia. Their hopes for returning to their earlier lives in Artsakh are fading, while their struggle to restart their lives is a daunting challenge. Although their plight is not widely reported in the United States, these Christian believers deserve our concern and our prayers. May their safety in Armenia continue, their wounds be healed, and their efforts to begin new lives be blessed and protected.
Lela Gilbert is Senior Fellow for International Religious Freedom at Family Research Council and Fellow at Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom. She lived in Israel for over ten years, and is the author of "Saturday People, Sunday People: Israel through the Eyes of a Christian Sojourner."