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World News

Armenian priest fears for Karabakh's Christian heritage amid mass exodus

by Reuters Journalist

Father David fears for Nagorno-Karabakh's ancient Christian heritage following the defeat of the region's ethnic Armenian breakaway enclave by Azerbaijani forces.

The 33-year-old Armenian priest has come to Kornidzor, a village on the border with mainly Muslim Azerbaijan, to provide spiritual support to tens of thousands of his compatriots now fleeing their ancestral home in Karabakh.

"This is one of the darkest pages of Armenian history. The whole of Armenian history is full of hardships... The blow we are receiving now is one of the heaviest," Father David told Reuters, his black robes billowing in the wind.

Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan but is populated mainly by ethnic Armenians who have run their own state there - the self-styled Republic of Artsakh - since the 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Azerbaijan launched a lightning offensive last week to retake the whole region, prompting a mass Armenian exodus.

More than 50,000 people had crossed the border into Armenia by early Wednesday afternoon, nearly half of Karabakh's estimated 120,000 ethnic Armenians. Azerbaijan has promised to protect their rights, but refugees crossing the border told Reuters they preferred exile to life under Baku's rule.

Prior to last week's offensive, the Karabakh Armenians had lived under an effective 10-month Azerbaijani blockade which had led to chronic shortages of food, fuel and medicines. At least 200 people were killed in Azerbaijan's offensive, Karabakh authorities said, while Baku said 192 of its soldiers died.

Father David said Nagorno-Karabakh was home to about 400 Armenian holy sites but he said some of these were desecrated or destroyed after Azerbaijani forces retook territory in and around the region during a 44-day war in 2020.   

"The monasteries are under threat of destruction," he said.    "We had cases of this in the 44-day war."

Reuters could not independently verify his claim, though there were reports at the time of damage to Armenian religious sites, including a church being struck by Azeri missiles in the Karabakh town of Shusha.


Conflict in the region between Armenians and Azeris goes back more than a century.

From 1988-1994 about 30,000 people were killed and more than a million people, mostly ethnic Azeris, were driven from their homes as the Armenians threw off nominal Azerbaijani control in what is now known as the First Karabakh War.

Azerbaijan regained territory in and around Nagorno-Karabakh in the 44-day war in 2020, in which at least 6,500 people died. It ended with a Moscow-brokered peace deal and the deployment of a contingent of Russian peacekeepers. 

Although most of its neighbours today are Muslim, Armenia ranks as the world's oldest officially Christian country, traditionally dating its conversion back to 301 AD.

Armenia's Apostolic Church is distinct from both Orthodoxy and Catholicism, and is closely related to the Ethiopian and Egyptian Coptic churches. It is central to the identity of Armenia, which is peppered with historic monastery complexes.

Father David said he expected Azerbaijan now to claim that many monasteries in Karabakh are not Armenian but belong in fact to an earlier Christian civilisation known as Caucasian Albania, of which little is known.

There are churches in Azerbaijan which the authorities say are Caucasian Albanian rather than Armenians, something Armenians strongly dispute.

"Probably they will try to distort history, to say there is no Armenian trace here," he said, adding that he believed Baku would allow the larger monasteries to continue because of their tourism potential.

Azerbaijan has said Armenians who stay in Karabakh will be free to practise their religion, but many fear discrimination and worse by Azeris, a Turkic people with close linguistic and cultural ties to Turkey.

For its part, Azerbaijan, which also claims deep historical ties to the region, accused Armenia of damaging or destroying places of Azeri cultural heritage following the 1990s conflict.  

Father David said the enmity between Armenians and Azeris was not primarily religious, noting that Armenia has strong ties with neighbouring Iran, which shares a Shi'ite Islamic faith with Azerbaijan.

Instead, he said, it is a political and ethnic conflict that parallels the mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks during World War One. Armenia, backed by many historians and the parliaments of numerous countries, say they amounted to a genocide, a charge strongly denied by Turkey. 

"This isn't a war of faiths, or a war against Christianity. It is a typical continuation of the genocidal policies that Turkey once pursued," he said.

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