VATICAN CITY — The signing of a memorandum of understanding on cultural cooperation between Armenia and the Holy See on October 11 marked the culmination of a week in which contacts between the oldest Christian nation of the world and the Vatican have intensified both religiously and pastorally.
The signing of the memorandum took place during Armenian President Armen Sarkisian’s visit to the Vatican, which included a meeting with Pope Francis and a bilateral meeting with the Vatican Secretariat of State.
Armenian religious leaders have also participated in meetings at the Vatican. Catholicos Karekin II, head of the Armenian Apostolic Church (Armenian National Church), held an October 16 audience with Pope Francis, who visited Armenia in 2016.
The Catholicos brought with him Arman Tatoyan, a human rights defender from Armenia and author of reports denouncing the loss of Christian heritage in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Nagorno-Karabakh is an enclave within Armenian-majority Azerbaijan which asserted its independence with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The first Nagorno-Karabakh war, fought from 1988 to 1994, claimed around 20,000 lives.
The territory, known as Artsakh in Armenian, was at the center of a 40-day conflict last year that led to a painful ceasefire agreement for Armenia. As a result, several Armenian monasteries found themselves isolated.
Armenian scholars have denounced what they describe as “cultural genocide” in the region, pointing to what they say is a systematic campaign to destroy Christian heritage that has been going on for decades.
Azerbaijan, meanwhile, insists the region belonged to the former state of Caucasus Albania before it became Armenian. Officials also point to the destruction of Islamic buildings in recent conflicts.
The Vatican’s “Armenian Week” focused both on the protection of Christian heritage and the fate of prisoners of war, which remains uncertain.
An agreement signed by President Sarkissian with the Pontifical Council for Culture is part of a major diplomatic effort.
For Sarkissian, relations between Armenia and the Holy See are “good, but they could be better”. By “better,” he means that there could be a common cultural engagement, perhaps with exchanges of works of art between the Vatican Museums and Armenian institutions.
Speaking to a small group of reporters on October 12, Sarkissian noted that both Armenia and the Vatican are “small states with a big nation.”
The Armenian nation, the first to proclaim itself Christian in 301 AD, has worldwide connections due to a diaspora driven by the 1915 genocide (still unrecognized as such by countries including Turkey). The Medz Yeghern (“Great Evil Crime”), as it is called in Armenia, remains an open wound.
The Vatican “nation” includes Catholics from all over the world. And the Armenian president, a physicist by training and inventor of the concept of “quantum politics”, thinks precisely in terms of cooperation between small states placed on the margins of history.
The president developed these themes during his meeting with Pope Francis, then with the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Piero Parolin, and the “Minister of Foreign Affairs”, Archbishop Paul Gallagher.
Apart from the threat to the Christian heritage, there are also concerns about the Armenian soldiers who remain prisoners of war in Azerbaijani prisons.
“We don’t even have the number of people imprisoned, and we can’t even see the faces of the prisoners,” Sarkissian said.
The president did not disclose details of his conversation with the pope, which remains confidential. But he stressed that the Holy See, and in particular Pope Francis, has a soft power that should not be underestimated.
The president said the memorandum of understanding “would allow joint research to be conducted on matters of historical interest.”
“We hope that this will contribute to further intensifying the cooperation between Armenia and the Holy See in the fields of culture, science, archeology and other sectors, as well as the partnership between the Apostolic Church Armenian Church and the Roman Catholic Church,” he commented. .
During his meeting with Pope Francis, Karekin II touched on similar topics.
The head of the Church, to which about 92 percent of Armenia’s three million people belong, told CNA that the recent conflict had seen “military attacks, but also attacks targeting civilians, using weapons modern and prohibited”.
The Holy See of Etchmiadzin – the Vatican’s equivalent for the Armenian Apostolic Church – recently created a department to ensure the preservation of Christian heritage.
“With this office, we want to disseminate information to the international public and ensure that these things do not happen again,” Karekin II said.
“But we also want to refute some of the Azerbaijani accounts, which argue that these churches belong to the Albanian-Caucasian heritage of the region.”
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has thus moved from a military level to a more cultural level. This is demonstrated by the commitment of the Armenian authorities on the issue.
In September, Armenia filed a formal complaint against Azerbaijan before the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Additionally, Tatoyan wrote a report highlighting the situation of POWs, which he personally presented to the Pope last week.
It is no coincidence that Karekin II brought Tatoyan with him. His presence served to give depth and substance to the Armenian denunciations. At the same time, the president’s visit aimed to elevate diplomatic relations to an even higher level.