The following reflection is sourced in the firsthand current experience of PRN Caucasus Regional Coordinator, Craig Simonian, from the dynamic and fluid crisis in the Artsakh region of Azerbaijan and is intended to raise awareness and awaken Christians around the world to pray and advocate for mercy, justice, and peace. The perspective here is not the official position of the World Evangelical Alliance but a voice from part of the World Evangelical Alliance family we need to hear.
The PRN Global Team believes addressing the complex issues related to peacebuilding anywhere requires truth-telling and listening carefully to the variety of voices in each context, particularly our sisters and brothers in Christ who are facing trials of many kinds and with whom we all share, as disciples of Jesus, the everyday call to be peacemakers and ministers of reconciliation. Beyond reading this update you can listen to PRN’s All Things Reconciled podcast: Crisis in the Caucasus: Armenians Under Pressure.
On September 19, 2023 after blockading the independent Republic of Artsakh1 for 281 days, starving its population of 120,000 Christian Armenians including 30,000 children and 20,000 elderly, Azerbaijan launched a bombardment of missile-fire against every part of the region. The aim was simple: to rid Artsakh of its Armenian population once and for all, a people who have lived in this land for millennia.
Over the past weeks, leaders from around the world have entreated Azerbaijan to end what the founding prosecutor of the International Court of Justice, Luis Moreno Ocampo, described as the “Armenian genocide of 2023”. United States Senator Chris Smith of New Jersey, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, addressed the ethnic cleansing of Armenians in Artsakh calling for the US and the international community to hold President Aliyev of Azerbaijan, who had previously declared his intention to drive out Armenians from Artsakh “like dogs,” accountable.
Following September 19, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, said “the European Union condemns the military operation by Azerbaijan against the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) and deplores the casualties and loss of life caused by this escalation.” And yet, with the apparent approval of Russia who is unfavourable toward Armenia building deeper ties to the West, Aliyev launched his attack.
Through the barrage of rockets, the Armenians in Artsakh were terrorized and taken from their villages and towns to Stepanakert, the capital, where tens of thousands remain, some living on the streets, waiting to see what will become of them. They have not had food, water, medicine or electricity for two days. A wall of silence surrounds Artsakh as there is no way for them to communicate with the outside world. At the same time, Azerbaijan has been careful to remove any foreign press and international observers, allowing Aliyev to act without accountability. And so, the residents of Artsakh live in darkness, unsure if the world even knows what is happening to them.
Within these few days, over four hundred are confirmed dead and there are hundreds more missing, many presumed killed. There is also significant anecdotal evidence that women and children are being trafficked as families are separated and men older than fourteen are being held on suspicion of terrorism against the Azeri State. During the 2020 war, Azeris posted and even live-streamed brutalities, including the beheading of Armenian soldiers and the raping, killing and dismembering of a female soldier. The UN Commissioner for Human Rights was clear that, by any measure, Azerbaijan was guilty of war crimes. Obviously, the brutality of what had happened before raises the fears in Artsakh to new heights now.
Before the communication blackout, there were constant reports of mass murder, which seems to continue despite an Azeri-announced ceasefire on September 20.2 In fact, while Russian “peacekeepers” have been complicit in much of this, six Russian servicemen dispatched to investigate news of mass civilian executions, rape, and abuse of corpses in five Armenian villages were ambushed and killed at point-blank range. The reason? They witnessed war crimes when they found Armenians hiding in the forests, begging them to help their families, while Azeris went from house to house “finishing off the surviving Armenians.”
Though the people of Artsakh are ready to defend their homeland, which their ancestors have occupied since at least 189 BC, there was no way for them to stand against the Azeri onslaught particularly because Turkiye, NATO’s fourth largest army, is working directly with them. Consequently, a white flag was raised. With Artsakh resting within Azeri borders, President Aliyev began a campaign to depopulate, through any means, the Armenians of Artsakh. Yet another genocide against Armenians is occurring and soon there will be a corresponding cultural genocide aimed at erasing Armenia’s extraordinary history in the region. Yet another generation is today at risk of the same fate their grandparents and great-grandparents experienced in the Armenian genocide of 1915 as well as the Azeri massacres of Christian Armenians in 1920 when forty thousand men, women and children were massacred in just a few weeks.
Without a doubt the volatility of the messaging and headlines emerging from the Caucasus will remain over the next days and weeks. But, as US Senator Gary Peters who is leading a congressional delegation to the region has said, “I think the world needs to know exactly what’s happening in there.”3 It is with this desire to raise the voice of the oppressed that we share this perspective and call upon Christians everywhere to pray earnestly, speak to government to raise awareness, and not forget that those suffering in Artsakh are in the vast majority Christian sisters and brothers who steward the faithful witness of Jesus as one of the oldest Christian people groups on earth.
Craig Simonian, PRN Caucasus Regional Director
Phil Wagler, PRN Global Director
1 Artsakh, inhabited by ethnic Armenians for centuries, is the preferred Armenian name for the enclave of just over 3,000 square kilometers within Azerbaijan that is also known as Nagorno-Karabakh.
2 The ceasefire was brokered by Russian troops who are allies to both counties. “What to know about the Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire.” https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/9/20/whats-happening-in-nagorno-karabakh-between-azerbaijan-and-armenia. Accessed September 24, 2023.
3 “Karabakh humanitarian fears grow with thousands sleeping on Stepanakert streets.” https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-66901759. Accessed September 24, 2023.