[Episcopal News Service] Earlier this month, following the 11th World Council of Churches Assembly, The Reverend Mark Edington, Bishop of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe, and Reverend Margaret Rose, Ecumenical and Interreligious Assistant of the Episcopal Church to the Presiding Bishop, visited Armenia as part of a small delegation from Churches for Peace in the Middle East to learn about the modern challenges facing Armenian Christians.
“The purpose of the trip was to show solidarity with Armenian Christians to learn more about the ongoing war between Armenia and Azerbaijan,” said Reverend Mae Elise Cannon, executive director of Churches for Middle East Peace, at Episcopal News Service. “We didn’t know we would be ‘in the middle’ of the conflict when we woke up on the first day to hear that towns on the Armenian border had been attacked.”
As the full delegation arrived in Armenia’s capital Yerevan on Sept. 13, news agencies reported that around 100 soldiers had been killed in a long-contested region on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border.
The attacks have raised fears that long-running hostilities between the two former Soviet republics – they share a border in the mountainous Caucasus region straddling Europe and Asia – could be reignited. Although officially a secular nation, the majority of Azerbaijan’s 10 million citizens identify as Muslim. Ninety-seven percent of Armenia’s 3 million people identify with the Armenian Apostolic Church, one of the oldest Christian churches, although at least twice as many Armenians live in the diaspora, with a significant number in Russia, Iran, Georgia and further afield in France. and the United States.
Armenia’s history, which dates back to the Russo-Persian War of 1878, “is essentially a story of the steady reduction of national space to a relatively small part of what was once somehow dominated by Armenian culture. , and that’s why you have these islands of Armenians living in countries that aren’t Armenia,” ENS Edington, who oversees a congregation east of Tbilisi, Georgia, told ENS.
At the beginning of the 20e century, more than a million Armenian Christians were killed or forced to flee Turkey in what is now more widely recognized as genocide, including by the United States. The dead are commemorated annually on April 24, marking the start of the genocide in 1915, the Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, which the General Convention of the Episcopal Church voted to place on the church calendar, Lesser Feasts and Fasts, in 2006.
It was the ethnic and religious persecution of Armenians that created a large diaspora, including in the Old City of Jerusalem, however, Armenians fled the Caucasus region in greater numbers between 1914 and 1923, during the time of the genocide.
The most recent conflict dates back several decades and concerns Nagorno-Karabakh. The region is part of Azerbaijan but has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia since the end of a separatist war in 1994, three years after the two nations declared independence from what was then the ‘Soviet Union.
“The history of the Nagorno-Karabakh region, identified as Artsakh by Armenians, dates back to the collapse of the Soviet Union,” Christians for Middle East Peace said in a statement calling for a ceasefire. immediate fire and putting the attacks in context. “Armenians view the area as historically Armenian, given the centuries-old presence of Armenian communities, churches and ancient Christian sites.
“Many of these sites were intentionally destroyed during the two major wars of 1988-1994 and 2020 between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces, including hundreds of damaged or demolished churches and thousands of ancient Armenian crosses carved in stone ( khachkars) having been destroyed”.
The importance of preserving this Christian heritage goes beyond the immediate borders of Armenia; Armenian Apostolic Orthodoxy has a wider influence.
“Armenia [reflects] the oldest of Christian traditions; the first nation to be Christian,” Edington told ENS. “The church and its worship are largely unchanged from medieval times.”
This story is an important part of a larger Christian story, and Armenia preserves it in important ways.
“There are about 12 million Armenians in the world, and about 9 million of them claim membership in the Armenian Church. As a church, we are concerned about a sister church that has seen the destruction of its own heritage, damaged and destroyed contrary to international standards,” he said. “We make no judgment other than to say that we want a just and peaceful settlement between Armenia and Azerbaijan. We can be very clear and say that it is never right to destroy the religious heritage of a country or a people”.
Following the 2020 attacks, The Episcopal Church joined with its ecumenical partners in prayer for a peaceful end to the conflict. Churches for Middle East Peace, of which the Episcopal Church is a founding member, has a long-standing relationship with the Armenian Apostolic Church, including through our executive council member, Archbishop Vicken Aykazian, who serves the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church in America, Cannon said. .
Aykazian is a longtime ecumenical partner of the Episcopal Church who was invited to preach at General Convention in 2015.
This month’s delegation traveled at the invitation of Aykazian, who is of Armenian descent but was born and raised in Jerusalem, where Armenians have occupied part of the Old City for centuries. They met with religious leaders and government officials and visited monasteries and museums, including the Armenian Genocide Museum, “a powerful and powerful experience,” Rose said.
It is insufficient to limit discussions of building a lasting peace in the Holy Land to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, Rose told Episcopal News Service upon returning to New York and preparing to attend meetings offsite during the United Nations General Assembly, including an interfaith conversation with the President of Iran, which also shares a border with Armenia.
In a broader geopolitical context, as evidenced by the churches’ advocacy work for peace in the Middle East, peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan is important for regional stability. “If you want to build peace, you have to talk about what’s happening in the surrounding area,” Rose said.
As part of its upcoming work, Churches for Middle East Peace will advocate for U.S. foreign policy to respect the 2020 ceasefire agreement, while calling on Azerbaijan to withdraw from the disputed area and calling the two countries to engage in conversations aimed at peace, said Cannon, the executive director.
For more information on Churches for Peace in the Middle East, visit.
–Lynette Wilson is editor of the Episcopal News Service. She can be contacted at [email protected]