By Peter Pinedo
The ongoing war between Azerbaijan and Armenia threatens the existence of Christian communities in the near east, former ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom Sam Brownback and other Christian leaders warned in a Tuesday press briefing.
Brownback’s statements were delivered just days after he returned from a fact-finding trip to Armenia with the Christian human rights group Philos Project.
Brownback, who is a Catholic, called Islamic Azerbaijan’s invasion of Armenia and its ongoing blockade of the Nagorno-Karabakh region the latest attempt at “religious cleansing” of the Christian nation.
“Azerbaijan, with Turkey’s backing, is really slowly strangling Nagorno-Karabakh,” Brownback said. “They’re working to make it unlivable so that the region’s Armenian-Christian population is forced to leave, that’s what’s happening on the ground.”
The ambassador added that if the United States does not intervene, “we will see again another ancient Christian population forced out of its homeland.”
Brownback called for Congress to pass a “Nagorno-Karabakh Human Rights Act” to “establish basic security guarantees for the Nagorno-Karabakh population.”
He also called on the U.S. to reinstate previously used sanctions on Azerbaijan should it continue its blockade.
Christians in the near east have been subjected to similar attacks before, Brownback said. Yet according to the former ambassador, this time the religious cleansing is being “perpetrated with U.S.-supplied weaponry and backed by Turkey, a member of NATO.”
Sandwiched between the Muslim nations of Turkey and Azerbaijan in the southern Caucasus, Armenia has Christian roots that go back to ancient times. Today the population is over 90% Christian, according to a 2019 report by the U.S. State Department.
Conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region has been ongoing since Armenia and Azerbaijan, both former Soviet territories, claimed the land for themselves after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. After the First Nagorno-Karabakh War in 1994, Armenia gained primary control of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Tensions between the two nations once again broke into outright military conflict in September 2020 when Azerbaijani troops moved to wrest control of the disputed region. The open conflict lasted only about two months, with Russia brokering a peace deal in November.
The conflict resulted in Azerbaijan gaining control of large swathes of the region. This left Armenia’s only access point to Nagorno-Karabakh a thin strip of land called the “Lachin corridor.”
A study published in the Population Research and Policy Review estimates that 3,822 Armenians and at least 2,906 Azerbaijanis were killed during the 2020 conflict.
Today, an Azerbaijani blockade of the Lachin corridor, in place since December, is crippling Armenian infrastructure in Nagorno-Karabakh.
“The situation is extremely urgent and existential,” Philos Project President Robert Nicholson said. “This is the oldest Christian nation facing again for the second time in only about a century the possibility of a genocide.” He was referring to the deaths of up to 1.5 million Armenians more than a century ago in waning years of the Ottoman Empire that the U.S. now recognizes as a genocide, a characterization that Turkey has sharply denounced.
According to Nicholson, there are 500 tons of humanitarian equipment “unable to get into Nagorno-Karabakh because of the blockade that Azerbaijan has placed upon that region.”
“There has been no natural gas flowing since March and other energy supplies, [such as] electricity, are spotty at best,” Nicholson added. “Families have been separated. Surgeries have been canceled. The 120,000 people inside [Nagorno-Karabakh] are really desperate for help.”
Though much of the media coverage about the Armenian-Azerbaijani war has characterized it as simply a territorial dispute, according to both Brownback and Nicholson, the conflict is more one of ideology and religion.
“This is in fact not just a territorial dispute,” Nicholson said. “While there are territorial questions, I see this dispute absolutely as one of values.”
According to Nicholson, “the Armenians are not asking for much.”
“The Armenians we met, and we met a lot of them, were quite minimal in their demands,” he said. “They want to live in their homeland, and they want to do so securely.”
Despite the dangers, Nicholson said that the Armenian Christian communities’ plight “is not a lost cause.”
“Shockingly, despite all the threats that they are facing, Armenia is actually quite vibrant,” Nicholson said.
“There’s room,” he added, “for the United States to play a very constructive role in helping these different parties, both of which are our allies, to reach a peaceful and just solution to end the conflict.”