Churches in a Siege: Armenians Alert about the Threat against Millennia-old Christian Sites | Persecution

Bandaging and building the persecuted Church since 1995

Churches in a Siege: Armenians Alert about the Threat against Millennia-old Christian Sites

By Haykaram Nahapetyan

09/27/2021 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – In the early morning of December 27th of 2020, about 1.5 months after the combats in Nagorno-Karabakh (historic Artsakh) ceased, a caravan of SUV cars left Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno Karabakh, embarking on a challenging trip to Dadivank monastery. An Armenian couple under the protection of Russia’s peacekeepers was planning marriage at this historical site, which Azerbaijani soldiers now surrounded.

A key Christian monastery of the area, Dadivank is also one of the most precious sites of early Christianity: the grave of St. Dadi, a disciple of St. Thaddeus is located here, according to existing information. If you have ever wondered why the traditional Armenian Church is called “Apostolic,” here is the reason: as Armenian chroniclers suggest, Christ’s two apostles, St. Thaddeus and St. Bartolomeo brought the emerging religion to Armenia shortly after the Crucifixion. One of them, disciple Dadi, was buried at Dadivank, where a church was built later.

“I wanted to marry at Dadivank,” said Aram Verdian when we sat down at one of Stepnakert’s main cafes for a brief interview. “I wanted to highlight that the Christian-Armenian traditions here did not cease to exist. A new marriage, a new family and, with God’s blessing, children to come – all these symbolize that the life in Artsakh continues.”

For background info: exactly one hundred years ago, the Armenian-populated Nagorno-Karabakh (historically known as the Armenian region of Artsakh) and its millennia-old Christian heritage were handed over to Turkic Azerbaijan by Soviet dictator Stalin who back then was in charge of Nationality Affairs in the first Bolshevik government.

“Though we do not know the full extent of the reasons for the transfer of Nagorno-Karabakh to Soviet Azerbaijan in the 1920s by Joseph Stalin, we are fairly certain that the decision was arbitrary, circumventing, or rather disregarding both the ethnoreligious background of region’s inhabitants and their popular will,” says Dr. Artyom Tonoyan, a research associate at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. Near the end of Soviet rule, in the late 1980s, the Armenians of NK attempted to withdraw from Soviet Azerbaijan and reunite with the neighboring Soviet Armenian Republic. Public rallies in NK were followed by massacres of Armenians in various settlements of Soviet Azerbaijan. After the USSR collapsed in 1991, the hostilities turned into full-scale war.

By 1993, the NK Armenians established control over the area of Dadivank and eventually attempted to rebuild the site. The somewhat slow-motion restoration advanced between 2015-2018 as the new road running beside the temple brought more tourists and pilgrims to the area. However, last year, on this day of September 27th, the Azerbaijani attack supported by Turkey and mercenaries from the Middle East resulted in the loss of Dadivank altogether with many other religious sites. Russia’s peacekeepers came to the area in November. Now it’s them protecting this precious temple, with a growing number of Azerbaijani troops deployed in the vicinity.

Aram Verdian says the last war highlighted how a coalition of radical forces can attack an isolated Christian community in the 21st century. “The support of the Christian world that we received was mainly limited to statements of goodwill. We largely remained by ourselves against mighty powers, including mercenaries and Turkey’s soldiers. Does this mean we are disappointed in our Christian faith? No. To me, the last war highlighted the importance of surviving in a siege,” Aram continued.

As it has been reported earlier, International Christian Concern dispatched a crew for a field study to Artsakh last May. They met locals, the authorities and released a report shortly after the return. ICC’s observations are in line with what Aram told me. “Quite often, we were met with wordless grief as residents struggled to understand why they were left alone in their hardships and how it is that they have come to be surrounded by Turkic nations (Azerbaijan and Turkey) who seek only their complete annihilation,” highlighted ICC’s fact-finding mission. Referring to Nagorno-Karabakh as “an isolated enclave of Christianity,” ICC identifies the Azerbaijani-Turkic current policy against Artsakh as a “continuation of the 1915 Armenian Genocide.

According to ICC’s regional manager Claire Evans, Azerbaijan wants nothing less than the total destruction of the Armenian people, and “they are attempting to justify those actions by rewriting history (which means destroying Armenian heritage sites).”

“President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev does to the Christian heritage of Artsakh what Recep Erdogan did to Hagia Sophia temple in Turkey: they Islamize or distort the Christian heritage,” Bishop Vertanes, the religious leader of Artsakh, said when we met at the diocese center. He alerted me that the archive of the Church of Artsakh remained in the currently occupied historical town of Shushi. BBC highlighted that a church in the southern area was razed to the ground.

It is still unclear how many Christian sites were lost to Azerbaijanis due to the War: it depends on what you count as Christian sites. According to a database prepared by Armenian-American historian from Tufts University Christina Maranci, the number can go as high as 4041 if we count everything from churches to gravestones. Otherwise, as Artsakh’s religious and political authorities say, there have been 13 cathedrals, 22 churches, four chapels, over 500 crosstones. *

“We have reports that Armenian gravestones are used to construct a highway in the occupied area of Hadrut,” David Babayan, the Foreign Minister, stated. This is not the first time that they have destroyed our gravestones, the Minister added.

Babayan, a native of NK himself, refers to the tragic precedent of the medieval Armenian gravestones that the Azerbaijanis had destroyed in the Nakhichevan region. The United States Commission for the International Religious Freedom referred to this act of vandalism in its 2015 report. Babayan highlighted that Azerbaijan’s authorities impose a growing number of restrictions on Armenian pilgrims who want to visit Dadivank.

“In the first weeks following the end of the combats, almost 100 pilgrims were able to visit this site each week. Now the number is down by about ten times,” the Minister said.

Artsakh’s foreign ministry is trying to draw the attention of international organizations to the conditions of the Christian heritage in NKR. So does the Armenian Church, which organized a conference in Armenia earlier this month. Armenian American community and the Embassy of Armenia to the United States have been in touch with the Bible Museum of Washington, D.C. to arrange a virtual exhibit dedicated to the Christian Armenian heritage of Artsakh. Jeffrey Kloha, the chief curatorial officer of the Museum, set up an online exhibition, “Ancient Faith: The Churches of Nagorno-Karabakh,” to alert about the existing situation. “We are alerting about seven notable Christian sites in Karabakh that need to be preserved,” said Mr. Kloha when we communicated.

While this report was being prepared, new images depicting severe destructions of the Green Church of Shushi became available on public domains. A soldier, presumably related to Azerbaijani forces, is posing in front of a half-destroyed Christian monument. This area was fully renovated before the last attack took place.

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Haykaram Nahapetyan is the U.S. reporter for Armenia’s First channel. He is a Ph.D. student at Liberty University in Virginia.

*Characteristic of medieval and contemporary Armenian art, cross-stones or khachkars represent a carved stele bearing a cross, often with additional motifs and ornaments.

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