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Artsakh Blockade: 120,000 Armenian Christians Face Humanitarian Crisis
Currently, for numerous households, bread serves as their primary daily meal; however, individuals are only able to procure bread through government-issued ration vouchers.
In the South Caucasus, a region on the border of Eastern Europe and West Asia, a silent genocide is looming. On December 12th, 2022, Azerbaijan closed the Lachin Corridor; a mountain pass that connects Armenia with the self-governing Republic of Artsakh which is situated in Azerbaijan, but is inhabited by Armenians and has been for centuries. Since June this year, no transport in or out of the area has been allowed by the Azerbaijani authorities, including medical care and essential food supplies by the International Red Cross. A food convoy has been waiting in vain right on the border between both countries since July 25th because all access to the people of Artsakh has been denied.
For almost nine months, the Lachin Corridor has been closed by the Azerbaijani authorities. Supermarket shelves are empty, and at night people stand in line for hours to buy their daily portion of bread. Fuel and medication are extremely scarce. Effectively, 120,000 Armenian Christians are locked up and cannot enter or leave Nagorno-Karabakh (which is called Artsakh by the Armenian residents). Several witnesses have claimed that while people try to work on their land, the Azerbaijani authorities are shooting at them, preventing farmers and inhabitants from harvesting their wheat and vegetables.
Marut Vanyan and Siranush Sargsyan, two journalists who work and live in Artsakh, have expressed their concern that in a few days’ time, bread will also be scarce. This scarcity is not solely attributed to the shortage of flour but is exacerbated by the insufficient fuel supply required to operate bakery ovens in the region. Right now for many families bread is their main meal of the day, but people can only buy bread using state-issued ration coupons. These coupons mean every person is entitled to only 200 grams -or half a loaf- per person each day because the region’s flour supply has dwindled. Last month a 40-year-old man died of starvation. According to the authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh, he is the first victim of chronic malnutrition caused by the lack of protein and energy.
The blockade has caught little to no international attention, however, over the past several weeks this has changed. The United Nations Security Council held an emergency meeting on August 16th demanding the Lachin Corridor be reopened and accessible. A Congressional hearing is also scheduled for Wednesday, September 6th on Azerbaijan's blockade of Artsakh (Nagorno Karabakh). No concrete steps have been taken yet. Both Human Rights Watch and the International Red Cross have stated that under the current situation, it is impossible to provide the residents of Nagorno-Karabakh with food and medical supplies. Initially, Azerbaijan refuted the existence of a blockade, but in light of the recent surge in international media coverage over the past few weeks, it has now asserted that it provided assistance to the region. What is going on here and how could the situation have escalated without almost no international response?
Armenian Cultural Heritage
The Lemkin Institute for Genocide Prevention stated in their September 5th report, “Artsakh, named Nagorno-Karabakh by the Soviets has been inhabited by Armenians for centuries. Although the Republic of Artsakh lies inside Azerbaijan’s current legal borders, Artsakh has never been an integral part of the Azerbaijan state or nation in that citizens of Artsakh have never been governed directly by Azerbaijanis.”
One of the main difficulties of the situation is that Azerbaijan denies that Armenians have lived in the region for so long. Notwithstanding the immense archeological heritage the Armenians have left in Artsakh, such as churches, monasteries, and cross-stones called khachkars, Azerbaijan persists that the Armenian presence in Artsakh and Nakhichevan is only a few decades old. Even before the current blockade of the Lachin Corridor, in September 2022, Genocide Watch warned that genocide on the Armenian people living in Artsakh was looming because of the cultural genocide that had happened preceding the dire situation we see today.
A few years ago several observers found that all cultural heritage of Armenian Christian presence in Nakhichevan (until the last Nagorno-Karabakh war from 2020 also predominantly inhabited by Armenians) had been wiped out completely. It is said that this was ordered by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev personally. That is significant, because the vice-president of Azerbaijan, his wife Mehriban Aliyeva, is an ambassador of UNESCO and in that capacity responsible for protecting the cultural heritage of the country. According to research by Sarah Pickman and Simon Maghakyan, more than 2,000 khachkars from the Julfa cemetery have been destroyed. Another 5,840 khachkars from other areas in Nakhichevan have also been destroyed as well as 89 Armenian Christian Churches.
In Artsakh, similar things are happening. After Azerbaijan won the second Nagorno-Karabakh war in 2020, it took control of parts of Artsakh and started to destroy churches and monasteries there too, just as they had previously done in Nakhichevan. For example, BBC correspondent Jonah Fisher reported in 2021 that an Armenian church had been completely wiped out by Azerbaijan. In an older video that Fisher shows, Azerbaijani soldiers are seen standing on top of the church building shouting ‘Allahu Akbar.’ When Fisher returned to the region previously occupied by the church in 2021, nothing was left apart from a few rocks. The hilltop where the church formerly stood now looks desolate.
Christian History of Artsakh
Another way Armenian history and culture of Artsakh are being destroyed is by way of altering history. The Azerbaijani historian Ziya Bunyadov developed a theory concerning a minority, called the Udi Christians, back in the 1950s when both Armenia and Azerbaijan were still part of the Soviet Union. This theory was later adopted by others including the current Aliyev government. Udi Christians are the only group left of what once was the Caucasian Albanian Church; a medieval Christian church that after the Islamic conquest of the region in the eighth century AD almost entirely dissolved in the Armenian Apostolic Church. In short, the Christians living in the region were conquered by Turkic-Islamic conquerors. Now, centuries later, Azerbaijan claims that its population is the heir of what they call the real or true Christendom from the region, the Caucasian Albanian Church. The Armenians who have lived there for centuries and have survived the Turkic conquest, several pogroms, and the Armenian genocide, are portrayed as occupiers.
Vice-President Aliyeva argued in a July 2023 paper that the Armenians were living on good terms with the Arabs from the Umayyad caliphate (661 – 750 AD) and that both parties drove out the Caucasian Albanian Christians. According to a report by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) this re-writing of history is paving the way to whitewash ethnic cleansing; when Armenians are in fact occupiers who don’t belong in Nagorno-Karabakh, then to expel them and wipe out every trace of their existence in the area is somehow permitted. In history books, school books, and on official government pages the presence of Armenian Christians in Azerbaijan is deliberately left out or they are portrayed as intruders.
During the Armenian genocide (1914 – 1923) an estimated 1.5 million Armenians from present-day Turkey and other parts of the region were murdered. In Baku, the capital of what is now Azerbaijan, several pogroms took place in which Armenians were murdered and driven out of the city. Less known by the wider public is that thousands of Armenian women and girls were abducted, raped, and Turkified; i.e. forcibly converted to Islam and assimilated into Turkish culture. It is important to realize that there are other Turkic nations than Türkiye itself, such as Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan. This means that Armenians form a different ethno-religious group within the Caucasus.
John Eibner, a human rights activist and until recently the CEO of International Christian Solidarity (ICS) USA, said in an interview that what we are witnessing today in Nagorno-Karabakh (he was speaking about the war in 2020) is the final stage of the Armenian genocide which started at the end of the nineteenth century. Eibner warned against what he calls the ethnic cleansing of Christian Armenians from the Caucasus. Not, as Eibner explained, primarily a conflict driven by theological differences between people, but because the religious identity of both ethnic groups, Azerbaijani and Armenians, plays an intrinsic part in the conflict. Eibner is not the only expert who wrote about the role of religion in the conflict; Svante Cornell, a Swedish scholar who specialized in the Caucasus, already qualified the conflict between Azerbaijan and its Armenian citizens as an ethno-religious one back in 2006.
In the secular worldview, religion is a personal matter, an individual choice. In other parts of the world, however, people are more likely viewed as members of a particular ethno-religious group. Many former Soviet states, for example, Azerbaijan, have adopted laws that make it easier for governments to control religion and ethno-religious communities. Often, the state prefers one religious variant over others even when, as is the case in Azerbaijan, on paper the state is supposedly secular.
Most comments in Western media will argue that what is happening in Artsakh today is a dispute between two sovereign countries over a piece of land rather than an ethno-religious one. Given all the examples listed above, i.e. deliberately targeting religious buildings such as churches, monasteries, gravestones, religious inscriptions, and so on, it is undeniable that there is a religious component involved. Just before the start of the second Nagorno-Karabakh War in the fall of 2020, Azerbaijan was listed among the fifty countries in the world where Christians are faced with the most extreme persecution. This annual list is published by Open Doors, a religious freedom advocacy that tries to raise awareness of the persecution Christians face worldwide. In their latest report from 2023, Open Doors sees an increase in Christian persecution under authoritarian regimes in the Caucasus including Azerbaijan.
Armenian Christians wanting to attend church in the ancient Dadivank monastery in Artsakh have been denied access by Azerbaijani authorities on several occasions. According to bishop Vrtanes Abrahamian, the authorities do not want the monastery to serve as a Christian place of worship. Some reports claim the cross on top of the dome of the church has been removed. During the Maragha massacre that took place in the early nineties of the twentieth century, eyewitnesses have said that Armenians were called ‘haram’ (forbidden or unlawful in Islam) and that all the Armenian dead bodies had cross marks on them. Journalist Ashkhen Arakelyan wrote (Sadistic Pleasures: Silent Crimes of Azerbaijan, 2021) that an Armenian prisoner of war was asked to convert to Islam. Another told her that Azerbaijani soldiers had taken all his belongings. All of his belongings, except for a Christian icon he had been carrying in his pocket, were returned to him.
As mentioned earlier, on paper Azerbaijan is a secular country. However, under Ilham Aliyev and his father and predecessor Heydar Aliyev, there has been an emphasis on the Islamic religion of most inhabitants of Azerbaijan. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in its 2008 report stated that the Aliyev regime instigated religious leaders in the country to partake in an anti-Armenian campaign. Svante Cornell pointed out that there is a development going on in Azerbaijan in which Islam is used for nationalistic purposes by the government. Unfortunately, this also includes the rise and propagation of radical Islam in Azerbaijan. According to Cornell, in as early as 2006, an increase of both Sunni and Shia -the two main streams of Islam- extremist groups have emerged in the capital of Baku. During the war in 2020, Azerbaijani ally Turkey sent thousands of Syrian ISIS mercenaries to Nagorno-Karabakh to defeat the Armenians. Some prisoners of war Arakelyan interviewed for her book claim they have also recognized mercenaries from other countries such as Pakistan. In 2013 reports claimed that Azerbaijani civilians had joined the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
The Azerbaijani government weaponizes culture, ethnicity, history and religion to create hatred and animosity towards its Armenian citizens as well as their neighbors in Armenia. The stage is set to drive out the last Armenians from Azerbaijan by claiming they don’t belong there and they have invaded Artsakh. This is done at state-level by the Aliyev regime. Systematically, by starting with the erasure of the Armenian history and heritage of Artsakh, in this final stage Azerbaijan calls Armenians liars and falsifiers of history and presents itself as the historical owner of the disputed region of Artsakh. This becomes apparent in a book called “Christianity in Azerbaijan: From Past to Present” by Anar Alizade in which the author describes that the exposure of what he calls Armenian lies and falsifications is the most important goal of his book. And it will not stop there; already we can see Azerbaijan calling parts of sovereign Armenia “West-Azerbaijan,” including the Armenian capital of Yerevan.