Dispatches From Nagorno-Karabakh: Armenian Christians Flee Another Genocide

Lela Gilbert is Senior Fellow for International Religious Freedom at Family Research Council. This article appeared in Religion Unplugged on September 26, 2023.

In recent months, good news has been hard to come by in our troubled world.

While we try to stay focused on the seemingly endless Ukraine-Russian conflict, our attention was suddenly distracted by a deadly earthquake in Morocco, soon followed by tragic news from Libya, where devastating floods cost some 10,000 lives. 

Meanwhile, despotic leaders have never ceased to plague the planet. And today, another crisis brings to mind the evildoing of Adolf Hitler. One of the Fuhrer’s most infamous quotes bears review and reflection.

As Hitler announced his plan to invade Poland and launch the Holocaust, primarily targeting Jews, he instructed his henchmen:   

“Send to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children. … Only thus shall we gain the living space (lebensraum) which we need. Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

Hitler made that declaration only a couple of decades after the Armenian Genocide began in 1915, during which as many as 1.2 million of the country’s citizens were murdered by the Ottoman Empire. Sadly, that same genocidal hostility continues to this very day. 

At least 68 people were killed and 105 remain missing after an explosion at a fuel depot, officials said on Tuesday, in the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan. The blast, which took place Monday, occurred as ethnic Armenians were rushing to leave the region and lining up to refuel their vehicles after a military offensive by Azerbaijan a week ago.

The small Armenian Christian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh — locally known as Artsakh — has long been part of historical Armenia. However, since December 2022, Artsakh has been under siege by neighboring Azerbaijan, and the world has largely ignored a prolonged assault on that peaceful community of 120,000 souls.

Azeri President Ilham Aliyev — a close ally and confidante of Turkey’s neo-Ottoman leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan — is responsible for this deadly aggression.    

During the Artsakh blockade, access to food and medicine were cut off, while public utilities including electricity, internet and gas were either shut down or damaged. Meanwhile, the Lachin Corridor, the sole roadway between Artsakh and Armenia, was obstructed by the Azeris. Even emergency vehicles and humanitarian aid deliveries have been barricaded for more than nine months.

And now, Artsakh’s Christians are being driven out of their historic homeland on a one-way journey to Armenia.

It is noteworthy that Armenia was the world’s first Christian nation, declared as such in the year 301. While the phrase “ethnic cleansing” is increasingly used to describe Artsakh’s plight, few, if any, major news sources have taken note of the religious persecution that fuels the Azeri blockage.

As Christianity Today has noted on the subject, “Sectarianism is a factor, as both Armenia and Azerbaijan have effectively merged their religious and ethnic identities. And with the latter’s attempts to erase the former’s historic Apostolic faith from the enclave … it would be improper to neglect their status as Christian.”

Meanwhile, we have personal stories of tormented Christian families, reflecting the blockade’s effect on their shattered lives. An Armenian friend, Anna Gregoryan, has generously collected and shared messages from inside Artsakh.  

Gohar and Ishkhan wrote from the village of Meth Shen:

We have a child who is sick at home and we’re out of medicine. My son can’t continue without medication. My sister, who lives in Yerevan, tried sending medicine several times, but was not successful. Canned food, our last food source is already gone, so we go to the forest and bring home whatever is edible. We don’t know how long we can last like this. Now that winter is right around the corner, the food sources from the forest will perish.

Narine, in Stepanakert, described her plight:  

My disabled child who is diagnosed with encephalitis can’t get treatment, nor we can take her to Yerevan to get medical help. Fruit and vegetables are only a dream to us now. We eat a chunk of bread and a small amount of rice every day. Soon, there will be no more rice. … Along with parents who fear for their children, Artsakh’s elderly men and women are also struggling.

Valentina in Stepanakert explained:

I am retired, my legs are aching, there’s nothing left to eat. There was one bag of flour that we used bit by bit every day to make bread. Today was the last day of us making bread because there’s no more flour left. There’s no bread or flour at the market Sometimes it gets restocked at the market and we have to stand in a long line, however, I can’t handle standing in line for hours to get bread or flour. I know a few times where people fainted in the lines. I don’t know what I’m going to do tomorrow. I have to go to the forest now to find food, so I won’t starve to death.

Following months of siege, Reuters reported last week: “Azerbaijan sent troops backed by artillery strikes into Armenian-controlled Nagorno-Karabakh on Tuesday in an attempt to bring the breakaway region to heel by force, raising the threat of a new war with its neighbor Armenia.”

Once the Azeri military offensive was launched, thousands of terrified Armenian civilians fled their ancestral homes, seeking whatever shelter they could find — praying for rescue. Then, on Sept. 24, the Azeris finally opened the Lachin Corridor to evacuees, providing only a one-way journey to Armenia. In a matter of hours, hundreds of cars jammed the roadway. And most of those who left knew that they probably would never return.   

As he prepared to flee Artsakh, Nare Poghosyan wrote:  

For the last time I spent the night in my house. … I’m sorry, father, I’m sorry guys, I stayed in Artsakh until the end because of your spilled blood, building and building houses, dignity, honor and name, now I have no land, no home, no father. Not homeland.

I don’t know where I'm going and where my day will end, but on the way to deportation, I realized what a real orphan is like. 

P.S.: I’m sorry, grandpa, I couldn't even cross the road and come to your native place of birth to say goodbye to you, or even take your photo hanging on the wall of the house with me. The most terrible dawn of my life on a foreign desert road. … I never imagined that one day I will have the last photo from the window of my house, and I won't be able to say goodbye to my other house. Because the Azeris want it that way.

These tragic stories of persecution are heartbreaking. The situation for Armenian Christians is worsening. As the events of the past week highlight, the world needs to take notice.