Armenian Church Sparks Controversy Amid Handover Of Villages To Azerbaijan – OpEd


Unrest and dissent in Armenia

The recent handover of four Azerbaijani villages by the Armenian government after nearly three decades of occupation has sparked controversy and dissent within Armenia, with the Armenian Church playing a leading role in opposing the move alongside certain pro-opposition and pro-Russian groups.

Armenia has agreed to return four occupied border villages that it has controlled since the early 1990s to Azerbaijan as the initial step in defining the borders between the two bitter South Caucasus rivals, the countries said in identical statements on April 19, 2024.

The Armenian Apostolic Church holds a central place in Armenian society, historically intertwined with the nation’s identity and cultural heritage. As a dominant religious institution, the church wields considerable influence over public opinion, particularly on matters relating to national security, territorial claims, and historical narratives.

After regaining full control over Karabakh, Baku is now pressing Armenia to return eight Azerbaijani villages that Armenians occupied following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Right now, four of the villages have been returned and the Pashinyan government acknowledges the legality of Azerbaijan’s demands. However, nationalist factions in Armenia are intensifying pressure on their government and mobilizing nationwide support to oust the prime minister. They falsely claim that returning these villages to Azerbaijan implies surrendering Armenian territories, which is not the case.

The handover of the four villages to Azerbaijan, as part of post-war agreements following the 2020 Second Karabakh War, has been met with mixed reactions within Armenia. While some segments of the population view these actions as necessary steps towards peace and normalization of relations with Azerbaijan, others, including the Armenian Church and certain opposition groups, perceive them as concessions that undermine Armenia’s national interests and historical claims.

The Armenian Church’s involvement in the campaign against the government’s policies reflects broader concerns about perceived threats to Armenia’s sovereignty and security. The church’s opposition to the territorial handover aligns with ultra-nationalist sentiments prevalent among segments of the Armenian population who prioritize retaining control over occupied by Armenia Azerbaijani territories.

In addition to the Armenian Church, pro-opposition groups critical of the Pashinyan government have seized upon the territorial issue to mobilize support against the ruling party. These groups argue that the government’s handling of the peace negotiations and territorial concessions has weakened Armenia’s position vis-à-vis Azerbaijan and compromised its ability to safeguard Armenian interests in the region.

Azerbaijan’s pressure on Armenia to engage in peace talks and accept a proposed settlement package reflects the shifting power dynamics in the South Caucasus following the 2020 war. The pressure exerted by Azerbaijan on Armenia to accept the proposed peace deal underscores the asymmetry in military capabilities and international support between the two countries. Azerbaijan’s enhanced position, backed by a strategic alliance with Türkiye and economic resources, gives it leverage in negotiations and incentivizes Armenia to engage in diplomatic efforts aimed at resolving outstanding disputes.

Armenian Church’s role in unfolding unrest

The Armenian Church has emerged as a central actor in ongoing demonstrations against the Armenian government’s decision to return four occupied villages to Azerbaijan and to demarcate the border between the two nations. This involvement underscores a significant shift in political dynamics within Armenia, particularly as traditional pro-Russian opposition forces wane in popularity while the church gains traction as a vocal dissenting force.

In the wake of the handover of four villages to Azerbaijan, the Armenian Apostolic Church has become one of the most vocal and militant opponents of Nikol Pashinyan’s government. This development occurs against the backdrop of dwindling support for pro-Russian opposition factions, which are losing ground to the growing influence of the church within protest movements.

Efforts by the opposition to leverage the territorial concessions to spark widespread protests throughout Armenia have largely faltered. Calls for mass disobedience from figures like former Armenian Defense Minister Gen Arshak Karapetyan have not yielded the anticipated results. Although protest groups attempted roadblocks in Yerevan and other regions, police intervention swiftly neutralized these actions, minimizing the impact of mass disobedience attempts.

However, tensions escalated notably in Kiran village, Tavush region, where violent clashes erupted between law enforcement and demonstrators, some of whom included Armenian army soldiers. Reports indicate injuries, numerous arrests, and prompt initiation of criminal cases against demonstrators involved in the clashes.

The involvement of military personnel in protest actions prompted a response from the Armenian Defense Ministry, which claimed that servicemen were inadvertently present among the demonstrators. Concerns over unrest within the military prompted investigative measures by the authorities to address the situation.

Key figures within the Armenian Church, such as Archbishop Bagrat Galstyan of the Tavush Diocese, played active roles in inciting clashes and spreading rumors aimed at mobilizing opposition to the government’s actions. Galstyan’s dissemination of unverified claims involving Azerbaijani officials further fueled tensions within protest movements.

Meanwhile, Archbishop Mikael Achapakhyan of the Shirak Diocese rallied support for protesters in Tavush and called for nationwide unity against the perceived “illegal delimitation process”.

Amidst these developments, the Armenian Defense Ministry ordered military units to withdraw from strategic positions in border villages, prompting protests from Armenian servicemen and even resignations in protest against perceived government capitulation.

Russian media outlets have capitalized on the unrest, suggesting potential preparations for a military coup against Pashinyan’s government due to popular discontent over the territorial concessions. Political experts have warned of the government’s vulnerability if military dissent reaches a critical mass, highlighting the deep societal divisions and political volatility within Armenia.

The agreement between Azerbaijan and Armenia to return the four villages has garnered mixed reactions internationally, with Western states generally supportive while official Moscow remains notably silent. Russian media coverage has amplified dissenting voices opposed to the agreement’s implementation, further contributing to the tense political climate.


The Armenian Church’s active role in recent protests underscores broader discontent within Armenian society over territorial concessions and border demarcation decisions. The church’s involvement, alongside ongoing opposition efforts and military dissent, signals a complex and evolving political landscape in Armenia, with significant implications for domestic stability and regional relations.

The role of the Armenian Church in opposing the Pashinyan government’s efforts to regulate relations with Azerbaijan reflects broader concerns about national security, territorial integrity, and historical narratives within Armenia.

The church’s stance aligns with sentiments among certain segments of the population who view territorial concessions as compromising Armenia’s sovereignty and national identity. Recent statements from pundits in Armenia have sparked controversy by accusing the Armenian Church of actively contributing to the disintegration of the country. These assertions, made by pundits, highlight a complex intersection of politics, religion, and national identity.

They suggest a deep suspicion of certain clergy members collaborating with Russian special services to destabilize Armenia. A group of pundits claim that the agenda of the opposition and protest movements aligns with efforts to dismantle Armenian statehood, ultimately benefiting Russia’s geopolitical interests.

Fuad Muxtar-Agbabali

Fuad Muxtar-Agbabali is a distinguished journalist from Azerbaijan and has authored many white papers on International Affairs and political analysis focused in the regions of Europe and Southern Caucasus.

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