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02/24/2023 Artsakh (International Christian Concern) – One hundred mothers wrapped their newborns in their arms at the Holy Mother of God Cathedral in Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh (Armenian: Artsakh). They’re taking part in the first ceremony of their lives. But these babies have a unique trait in common: they are united by an extraordinary circumstance: they have been under siege from the moment they were born.  

“When Christ was 40 days old, he was brought to the temple. And, according to the order, when the child is 40 days old, the parents are obliged to bring him to the church so that the little one receives a blessing,” said the leader of the Diocese Vrtanes Archbishop Abrahamyan, in his speech of blessing, handing over the newborns under siege in Artsakh gold pendant crosses donated by philanthropist and businessman Gagik Tsarukyan. 

Lusine Dadayan, mother of Arpi—a newborn in the siegehas experienced three wars. She feels as if she has been living outside her comfort zone for a long time. She said that despite all the hardships her family and all citizens are going through, the important thing is the birth of a child.  

“My daughter is a light in this darkness, and I believe with this light and the power of God, we will overcome this crisis, but I hope that after all these deprivations, my daughter and all other children will grow up in peace,” she said. 

Snowy Stepanakert Credit: Siranush Sargsyan

Cut Off from the World

For about 75 days, under the guise of an environmental action, Azerbaijan has closed the only road connecting Artsakh to Armenia and the rest of the world—the Lachin Corridor—and because of the physical barricade, 120,000 Christians in Artsakh (including 30,000 children, 20,000 older adults, and 9,000 disabled people) have been trapped.  

People in Artsakh are cut off from hundreds of tons of basic food, medicine, and fuel every day, and as a result, the population faces malnutrition and frostbite. During the blockade, Azerbaijan disrupted gas and electricity supplies into Artsakh several times.  

Since the start of the blockade, many governments and international organizations have condemned Azerbaijan’s actions and called for the lifting of the blockade.  

In his Sunday sermon, Pope Francis addressed the situation in Artsakh for the “grave humanitarian situation in the Lachin Corridor.” Similarly, His Holiness Aram I, the Diaspora-based Catholicos of the Armenian Church, issued an appeal to the world in which he called attention to the genocidal risk threatening Armenians in Artsakh.  

The Middle East Council of Churches issued statements condemning Azerbaijan’s blockade and inhuman acts toward the Artsakh people, violating international law.  

Shelves where candles once adorned are barren, sold out after the first day of the power outages as a source of light. Photo Credit: Siranush Sargsyan

Shelves where candles once adorned are barren, sold out after the first day of the power outages as a source of light. Photo Credit: Siranush Sargsyan

Finding Light 

During the blockade, spiritual and ritual ceremonies, liturgies, and prayers did not stop in the Artsakh Diocese. 

On Jan. 5. the eve of Christmas, with the blessing of the diocesan priest, a united prayer was performed with the participation of students of the Sunday schools running in the Artsakh Diocese, and festive events and performances were organized with spiritual songs.  

Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes out of the mouth of God.” These are the words of Jesus to the people of Artsakh in response to the famine. During the Christmas Mass in the Mother Church of Stepanakert, Bishop Vrtanes Abrahamyan urged “not to regret the lack of food, but to be content with what we have.”  

It is perhaps symbolic that during the Christmas celebration, it was impossible to find a candle in the shops to bring light home from Church. All candles were sold out on the first day during the power outage.  

There were seemingly endless queues in one of Stepanakert’s shops, hoping to buy a limited amount of essential goods. Photo Credit: Siranush Sargsyan

On the eve of Feb. 13, Armenians in Artsakh celebrate Trndez to mark the 40-day-old Christ being presented to the temple in Jerusalem. A ceremony of blessing the newlyweds was performed, and after the celebration, a fire was lit in the church yard as a symbol of the light of Christ.  

It is the light of Christ that unites people, especially the youth.  

Life in Unstable Conditions  

During the ongoing blockage, baptisms did not stop either. Anoush Sahakyan is a mother of four children who lost her house due to the 2020 war. She became an IDP (internally displaced person), and now rents a home in a new town.  

Sahakyan does not consider it a coincidence that she decided to get baptized along with her children under these difficult conditions during the blockade.  

“In such uncertain conditions, the greatest hope is in God,” she said, believing that with God’s blessing and help, they will not only overcome the blockade, but also one day return to their native village.  

“There are many difficulties, but what pressures me the most is not the lack and absence of food or gas, but the psychological terrorism with its irreversible consequences,” said Luisne Gharakhanyan, adviser to the President of the Republic of Artsakh said, referring to the difficulties of the blockade.  

“My faith and value system has helped me a lot. I solve the rest of the household issues with the Biblical commandment of abstinence,” she added. Gharakhanyan is more concerned about the fact that children are being deprived of attending school and kindergarten to receive education and care more than the psychological and cultural terrorism that is perpetrated against Armenians with irreversible consequences.  

Anush Sahakyan, mother of four children, lost her house due to the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war. Photo Credit: Siranush Sargsyan

Faith, Family, and the Fatherland  

The Armenian Apostolic Church has an irreversible role in preserving the identity and culture in the archaic layers of the Armenian civilization, type, and culture. The secret of the existence of the Armenian people lies in the preservation of Christian values.  

Ashot Sargsyan, Head of the Department for Religion and National Minorities, emphasizes the role of the Armenian Apostolic Church, not only during the siege, but also during the entire process of building the history of Artsakh, both its struggle and liberation.  

Going through two self-imposed wars, first in the 1990s and then in 2020, claiming thousands of lives, Azerbaijan captured most of Nagorno-Karabakh (Armenian: Artsakh) before a permanent cease-fire was brokered by Russia and peacekeeping troops were deployed. But peace never came.  

On the 71st day of the blockade, the young generation Is marking the 35th anniversary of the Artsakh movement with a traditional national dance. Photo Credit: Siranush Sargsyan

At the first stage of Artsakh’s national liberation movement, the leader of the Artsakh Diocese created a traveling group of believers who went to the settlements of Artsakh to carry out spiritual preaching. Believers visited the people sheltering in basements and conducted spiritual sermons to bring hope to a grim reality.  

Sargsyan remembers that during the first Karabakh war, the freedom fighters of different detachments, having been baptized in the church of Saint Hovhannes Mkrtich of the Gandzasar monastery, immediately went to the battlefield. In the hottest days of the war, they painted a white cross on their arms and back.  

These days are also significant for the Christians living in Artsakh. The struggle for their right to live freely and dignified began 35 years ago. In the third month of the ongoing siege, under the threat of deprivation and ethnic cleansing, they are unbreakable, because there can be no compromise for giving up faith, family and the fatherland. Carrying Christian values strengthens the spirit. Christianity is the beginning of their creation and the secret recipe of their existence.  

For more background on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. 

Feature image: One hundred newborns take part in the first ceremony of their lives at the Holy Mother of God Cathedral in Stepanakert where they each received a blessing and a gold pendant cross. Photo credit-Margarita Petrosyan