Editor’s Note: Full CT coverage of Armenian Christians is here.
Armenian history is marked by the perseverance of the faith.
As members of the first Christian nation [301 A.D.], we have faced centuries of persecution and the risk of total annihilation at the hands of our hostile neighbors. Through our faith in Jesus Christ, we have seen the resurrection and awakening of our people and the continuation of our sacred lineage, always remembering the supreme value of human life and doing our best to protect it.
But sadly, along the way, we have lost countless sacred places – churches and monasteries, cemeteries and monuments, sacred vessels and manuscripts – which have been the silent victims of conquest and war. They have disappeared from the map of human history, a lost piece of the universal Christian heritage.
Today, one of the last regions of our ancient culture is threatened with destruction. The land of Artsakh, known worldwide as Nagorno-Karabakh, was at the center of a brutal war, an assault on its indigenous Armenian population. Our people have lived on this land for thousands of years, making it home to sacred sites and precious relics. According to our tradition, the 13th century Gandzasar monastery contains the head of St. John the Baptist. Dadivank Monastery contains the tomb of Saint Dadi, a direct disciple of Saint Thaddeus, the Apostle of Christ who was one of the founders of the Armenian Apostolic Church.
It is with the greatest pain in our hearts that we have watched this land in grave danger for the past six weeks. Thousands of people, soldiers and civilians, old people and children, have been lost while our heritage has been directly affected. On October 8, Azerbaijani missiles struck the Cathedral of the All Holy Savior in Shushi, twice in one day.
In the ensuing ceasefire, a large part of Artsakh territory was handed over to Azerbaijan. It was the price to pay to avoid further loss of life. With great courage and commitment, our soldiers did their best to protect their ancestral homes. But Azerbaijan, with its fierce arsenal of weapons and massive oil wealth, had the greatest strength. With Turkey’s open support and the involvement of Syrian mercenaries fighting on the front lines, their assault was designed to overwhelm us.
With our communities and our congregations now driven from the earth, there remain thousands of sacred monuments, testimony of our history and our faith. What will happen to them next? I hope and pray that this is not a tragic fate.
When I visited Baku ten years ago, as part of the Summit of World Religious Leaders, I went to visit what may be the last Armenian church in the wider territory of Azerbaijan. Almost all traces of our culture have been removed from the building: the cross, the bells, the altar, the baptistery and the frescoes have been removed and the relics destroyed. There were many more ancient Armenian Christian sites across the country, but they have been destroyed in recent decades.
In the Dashkasan region of Azerbaijan, the Holy Translators Monastery, first built in the 4th century, is in ruins.
After the Nakhichevan region, historically home to a large Armenian community, was assigned to Azerbaijan by the Soviet Union, the Armenian inhabitants were driven out and over 6,000 intricate cross stones were destroyed. A campaign of cultural genocide continued until 2002. All this took place before the eyes of the civilized world, in the presence of researchers and photojournalists.
This cultural cleansing must not happen again.
During this war, we witnessed the hatred and barbaric behavior of Azeri soldiers towards the civilian population of Artsakh, war crimes which have been documented in detail. We have seen vandalism against our sacred monuments.
With this fresh in our memory, I have sincere doubts that the Azerbaijani authorities will protect the Armenian Christian sites now under their control. Azerbaijan is solely responsible for preventing any form of vandalism or destruction of our religious monuments, and for prohibiting any attempt to deny our history or to appropriate our culture.
I pray that the world will wake up to this call, stand up to protect this small piece of land and its significant contribution to universal human culture. My people fervently hope that institutions like UNESCO, Blue Shield International and the Smithsonian Institution will play a role in keeping our sacred sites as they are today.
We call on the rest of the world to testify, to pray for peace and justice, and maybe even to visit these churches themselves one day. (Many of these will be on display in a historical virtual exhibition, which will soon be hosted at the Bible Museum.) There are around 4,000 historical monuments in the Nagorno-Karabakh region; each of them has a powerful spiritual heritage to pass on.
In these difficult days, I remember the persistent words of Saint Paul in 2 Corinthians:
“We are in a hurry on all sides, but not crushed; puzzled, but not desperate; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.
May we all live in peace and security. May the power of faith sustain all people and comfort those who go through war and conflict around the world.
And may the Holy Spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ inspire all people to express their highest level of kindness, compassion and humanity to one another.
Catholicos Karekin II is the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church.
Speaking Out is the guest opinion column for Christianity Today and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the magazine.