A protester wearing the Armenian national flag stands in front of Russian peacekeepers blocking the road outside Stepanakert, capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, on Dec. 24, 2022. (Davit Ghahramanyan / AFP / Getty Images)

Jul 25 2023

The existence of Christians in a disputed border region is under threat due to ongoing conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, rights activists say.

Muslim-majority Azerbaijan’s invasion of Armenia and its ongoing blockade of the Nagorno-Karabakh region is the latest attempt at “religious cleansing” of the Christian nation, said Sam Brownback, a U.S. politician and former ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.

Brownback issued his statements to air concerns about Armenian Christians on July 18, Catholic News Agency (CNA) reported.

His responses were delivered days after he visited Armenia on a fact-finding trip with the Christian human rights group, Philos Project, the report stated.

Brownback, a Catholic, said that Islamic Azerbaijan is “strangling” the conflict-torn region.

“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.”

He warned 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.

While persecution of Christians in the near east is common, the latest one has a new dimension.

This time the religious cleansing is being “perpetrated with U.S.-supplied weaponry and backed by Turkey, a member of NATO,” he said.

Bordered by Muslim-majority Turkey and Azerbaijan, Christian roots of Armenia date to ancient times.

About 90 percent of Armenia’s estimated 2.8 million people are Christians, the U.S. State Department reported in 2019.

Conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region since 1990s after both nations gained impendence after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Both former Soviet states laid claims on the region, leading to the First Nagorno-Karabakh War in 1994. Armenia gained primary control of the territory following the war. 

Tensions sparked again in September 2020 when the two nations engaged in military conflict after Azerbaijani troops moved in to gain control of the disputed region.

The armed conflict lasted for about two months, ending with a peace deal brokered by Russia in November that year.

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. 

Following the conflict, Azerbaijan gained control of large swathes of the region and imposed blockade.  A thin strip of land called the “Lachin corridor” is now Armenia’s only access point to Nagorno-Karabakh.

Now, an Azerbaijani blockade of the Lachin corridor, in place since December, is crippling Armenian infrastructure in Nagorno-Karabakh, rights activists say, CNA reported.

“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. The U.S. has recognized the killings as genocide, but Turkey has repeatedly denounced the characterization.

Nicholson said 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.”   – UCA News