by Lela Gilbert
October 22, 2020
On October 1, 2020, a violent and dangerous war erupted in a tiny Christian enclave—a spot on the globe few Americans can probably find. And it bears a name that even fewer know how to pronounce: Nagorno-Karabakh (also known as Artsakh).
On October 21, the New York Times reported, “The three-week-old conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over a disputed territory in the Caucasus Mountains, where Europe meets Asia, has settled into a brutal war of attrition, soldiers and civilians said in interviews here on the ground in recent days. Azerbaijan is sacrificing columns of fighters, Armenians say, to eke out small territorial gains in the treacherous terrain of Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian enclave that is part of Azerbaijan under international law…” The Times continues:
Azerbaijan, an oil and gas hub on the Caspian Sea, has deployed superior firepower, using advanced drones and artillery systems … But three weeks into the conflict, Azerbaijan has failed to convert that advantage into broad territorial gains, indicating that a long and punishing war looms. It could morph into a wider crisis …
Turkey’s involvement in this war, led by its ruthless president, is highly controversial. As I wrote for the Jerusalem Post a few months ago:
Turkish aggression in at least five countries has been headlined in international news reports just this month, June 2020. These accounts focus on President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s latest intrusions into Israel, Libya, Iraq, Syria and Greece.
Meanwhile, it is noteworthy to those of us who focus on international religious freedom that whenever Turkey moves in, religious freedom moves out. There can be no lasting freedom of worship for any faith unless it conforms with Turkey’s Islamic practices.
Today we can add Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia to the list of Erdogan’s desired conquests. His hostile grasping into other lands, his transformation of Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia and Chora Church into mosques, and his militant outbursts underscore an intense desire to Islamize the region under the auspices of a renewed Ottoman Empire.
Azerbaijan is more than happy to have Turkey’s support—some say instigation—to continue cleansing Nagorno-Karabakh of Armenians. That would enable the Azeris, supported by their Turkish allies, to reclaim Nagorno-Karabakh’s disputed cities, towns, and villages for itself. And Turkey’s firepower is formidable.
But besides placing Turkish soldiers in harm’s way alongside the Azeris, Erdogan has also financed Syrian jihadi mercenaries—reportedly thousands of them—to augment the attack on the Armenian enclave. Foreign Policy headlined one story, “Syrians Make Up Turkey’s Proxy Army in Nagorno-Karabakh: After fighting Turkey’s battles in Libya, the Syrian National Army is caught in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan—and dozens are dying.”
In 1994, the first serious round of this conflict took place and some 30,000 died. At the time of this writing, although precise numbers are unclear, it appears that thousands more Azeris, Turks, Syrian mercenaries, and Armenians have lost their lives in the present fighting.
Most of Nagorno-Karabakh’s residents are Armenian Christians. And Armenia is, of course, well known, primarily because of the Armenian Genocide, which took place in the early 20th century. During that bloodbath, the Ottoman Empire’s Turkish Muslims slaughtered some 1.5 million Armenians, along with thousands more Pontic Greek and Assyrian Christians.
Turkey has long denied those horrifying massacres, which the rest of the world has recognized and mourned. In fact, the Armenian Genocide is far too well documented by photos, personal accounts, and governmental reports to be plausibly refuted.
It is noteworthy that at the genocide’s beginning, on November 13, 1914, a call to jihad—a holy war against Christian “infidels”—was officially announced by Ottoman Sultan Mehmed V Resad. The carnage began just days later. And, as I recently learned in a conversation with a friend in Yerevan, Azerbaijan’s present invasion is perceived by most Armenian Christians as the continuation of that same Islamist jihad against Armenia’s Christians.
Armenia was the first country in the world to convert to Christianity—in 301 AD. Its Armenian Orthodox Church is rooted in the earliest Christian history. In fact, the biblical record of Armenia’s land stretches back to the book of Genesis, when Noah’s ark came to rest after the Great Flood on what came to be known as Mt. Ararat. To this day, the deep faith of the Armenian people is evident. The historic role of the Christian faith in this land is undisputed.
Some years after the 1994 conflict, I traveled to Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia with Baroness Cox, Lifetime Peer in the U.K.’s House of Lords. It was during that trip I first learned that this conflict is not simply an “ethnic dispute.” It holds deep religious significance for combatants and civilians alike. Meanwhile, I was struck by Caroline Cox’s heart for the local Christians, their churches, and their charities.
With regard to the present fighting, a few days ago Baroness Cox sent me some of her present insights. Unsurprisingly, she strongly “condemns Turkey’s provocative actions and demands the immediate withdrawal of the Turkish armed forces, including the air force and jihadi terrorist mercenaries from the conflict zone.”
She continued: “The direct involvement of Turkey and the scale and ferocity of this offensive raises the genuine fear of an attempt at the genocide of the Armenian people which Turkey’s highest leadership has declared in so many ways … The revival of Ottoman rhetoric by the Turkish government reinforces the possibility/danger of realization of this evil intent.”
Baroness Cox concluded:
In the previous attempt by Turkey to achieve the genocide of the Armenians in 1915, the UK stood firmly against it. The historic and recent acts of ethnic cleansing committed by Turkey and Azerbaijan mean that for the Armenians, the preservation of Artsakh is a question of survival for their people and for their spiritual, cultural, and political heritage.