Slow and Silent Genocide: Please Pray for Artsakh’s Endangered Armenian Christians
Have you heard about the small Armenian enclave called Nagorno-Karabakh, which is also known as Artsakh? Even if you’ve heard of it, could you find it on a map? Probably not. In fact, most Americans — apart from those of Armenian heritage — are unaware of that community’s existence.
I became acquainted with Artsakh’s beleaguered Christian community more than a decade ago. I was fortunate to travel there with colleagues who were visiting that small and beautiful mountainous region on our way to Yerevan, Armenia. We were guided on our journey by Baroness Cox — a beloved friend and heroic human rights advocate who serves as a life-peer in Britain’s House of Lords.
Caroline Cox has visited Nagorno-Karabakh nearly 90 times over several decades. She has been deeply involved in assisting the Christian community there during several bloody episodes of violence that have taken place since the demise of the Soviet Union. At that time, Artsakh’s Christians voted to secede from neighboring Azerbaijan and to unite with Armenia.
As with many such disputes in today’s world, there is a religious component. The Armenian Christians chose to be independent of the Muslim, Turkish-oriented Azerbaijanis. Unsurprisingly, the horrific memory of the Armenian genocide in the early 20th century is never far from their minds. Meanwhile, the enclave is surrounded by Azeri Muslims, some of whom are radically opposed to Christian believers.
Only one roadway, the Lachin Corridor, provides a highway to and from Artsakh and Armenia. And for the past several months that road has been blockaded by the Azeris, cutting off the delivery of all provisions to Karabakh, including food, medication, and emergency services.
In the early 1990s, the dispute over this territory turned violent and deadly. At first and rather miraculously — the ridiculously outmanned, outgunned Karabakh troops defeated the Azeris. By the time the early conflict ended with a shaky peace treaty in 1994, the desperate Azeris had enlisted savage Arab and Afghan jihadi warriors to fight alongside their dispirited troops. Yet still the Armenians won.
For me, that alone was thought provoking. More amazing still, the death toll for the conflict in those early 1990s was some 6,000 Armenians vs. 20,000 Azeris. Meanwhile, Baroness Cox and others had managed to provide essential support and medication to the Armenians during the war and they continued to do so in the years that followed. And in fact, their defeat of the Azeris was nothing short of miraculous.
During our visit, I spoke to the Armenian Orthodox Archbishop in Stepanakert. He had shown us his large and perfectly preserved church, which he described as the “beating heart of Artsakh.” Several religious outbuildings, including a monastery, had been totally flattened by Azeri missile fire. But the church itself was perfectly intact. “It was as if an Invisible Hand had completely covered our church,” the amiable cleric told me with a smile, cupping one hand, shelter-like, above the palm of the other. “Only one bullet hole.”
Yes, it was a powerful miracle. But unfortunately, it was not the end of the conflict. For some two decades, a ceasefire which was signed in 1994 held successfully. However, in the early 2010s, the peace agreement began to fall apart. In the spring of 2016, there was a four-day conflict, leading to many casualties. Since 2020, violence has continued, and injuries and deaths continue to swell in number.
Today, the Christians in Artsakh are in dire straits. The Lachin Corridor, that sole roadway connecting Artsakh with the most basic necessities, has been blocked for several months, gradually leaving the Christian community without food, medication, electricity, and other basic provisions. And unless international intervention takes place, some 120,000 Christians may either find it necessary to flee their beloved homeland or lose their lives to starvation, violence, or disease.
The International Court of Justice has ordered Azerbaijan to lift the blockade, which is widely condemned by human rights groups, including the United Nations and the International Red Cross. In 2021, French President Emmanual Macron declared, “Azerbaijani armed forces have crossed into Armenian territory. They must withdraw immediately. I say again to the Armenian people: France stands with you in solidarity and will continue to do so.” Yet Azerbaijan continues to resist.
In February 2023, Reuters reported:
“The World Court ordered Azerbaijan on Wednesday to ensure free movement through the Lachin corridor to and from the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, as an intermediate step in ongoing legal disputes with neighbouring Armenia. The Lachin corridor, the only land route giving Armenia direct access to Nagorno-Karabakh, has been blocked since Dec. 12, when protesters claiming to be environmental activists stopped traffic by setting up tents …”
But such protests have fallen on deaf ears in Azerbaijan. In fact, the situation has deteriorated even further. In July, Azeri President Ilham Aliyev declared that Azerbaijan would “return more than 150,000 people to the Karabakh and East Zangezur regions” over the next three years. According to Aliyev, “the return of 140,000 people is envisioned by 2026 in the Karabakh region alone.”
Today, Baroness Cox continues to work on behalf of Artsakh along with Sam Mason, who serves as CEO of HART — the Baroness’s Humanitarian and Relief Trust. In a recent conversation with me, Sam expressed deep concern over the likely future of Nagorno-Karabakh’s beleaguered population and what the international community would require of them in exchange for peace. He explained:
“If a deal is signed, the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh will be expected to surrender their international right to self-determination. They will be forced, against their will, to become citizens of Azerbaijan — an anti-Armenian authoritarian regime, with an awful track record of human rights violations. Local people are terrified that the deal will be signed over their heads.”
Today, the disturbing story of Artsakh’s endangered Christians continues to unfold. Those Christians who have chosen to remain in their homeland have run out of food and medication. For months, the only way of escape has been the Lachin Corridor, which is barricaded by Azerbaijan. No matter how many times world leaders call for the Azeris to withdraw from the Christian enclave, nothing changes, and the deaths continuously rise. Meanwhile, the U.S. government continues to offer statements that imply moral equivalency, which are both dishonest and harmful.
As days and months pass, the number of persecuted Christians in our troubled world continues to multiply exponentially. We pray for Nigeria and for Africa’s millions, for China and North Korea, for the Middle East and Ukraine, and for believers scattered abroad who suffer in dozens of other lands. But as we plead with heaven on their behalf, let’s also remember the little enclave of Artsakh, where a few thousand struggling Christians are holding on to their faith, their hope, and their very lives. May we all soon see the miracle they’re awaiting.
Lela Gilbert is Senior Fellow for International Religious Freedom at Family Research Council and Fellow at Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom.