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Armenia, and practicing Christian solidarity in an age of empire

On September 13, 2022, I woke up to news that I and my colleagues at Christian Solidarity International had been dreading for two years: the armed forces of Azerbaijan were attacking the Republic of Armenia. It was a full-scale assault; by all appearances, the prelude to an invasion.

As thousands fled their homes to escape the bombardment, I tried to reach CSI’s project partner in the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, a man named Vardan Tadevosyan who runs a rehabilitation center for people with disabilities. To me, he is a heroic figure. When Azerbaijan attacked Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020, he evacuated his staff, but he stayed behind to care for his patients.

When we finally did reach him, he told us he was working to stave off panic among his staff and patients:

“Of course, they are afraid, and they are more afraid because they realize that we are all unprotected. There is no allied country to help us.”

Thankfully, a ceasefire, apparently imposed by the U.S., brought Azerbaijan’s attack to an end forty-eight hours later. But for those forty-eight hours, Armenian Christians were all wondering: Is this the invasion that will end us? 

They know that Armenia is not strong enough to withstand the Azerbaijani military, especially with its enormous neighbor, Turkey, helping Azerbaijan. They know what happens to Armenian civilians who get caught behind Azerbaijani lines – the videos of executions and torture that Azerbaijani soldiers uploaded to the internet during the last war made that all too clear. They have heard Azerbaijan’s dictator call Armenians “dogs” and “rats” and pledge to “drive them out of our lands!”

What explains the lack of interest in this crisis from Christians in America? 

In 2020, when Azerbaijan attacked Nagorno-Karabakh, many Armenians fled to the Republic of Armenia for safety. If the Republic of Armenia falls, there is nowhere left to run to.  But you could be forgiven for not knowing that any of this was happening. The mainstream media largely reported that Azerbaijan’s assault was a “border clash”; in Christian media, as far as I could tell, the issue was almost invisible. 

The Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict is about 120 years old, and has many complexities, which I do not have the space to go into here.   But some things are simple: the world’s first Christian nation, survivors of the 20th century’s first major genocide, is under attack by a brutal dictatorship which denies their right to exist.  Christianity has been at the heart of Armenian national identity for over 1,700 years; even after seventy years of rule by the communist Soviet Union, more than 99% of Armenians identify as Christian.

What explains the lack of interest in this crisis from Christians in America?  Part of the answer, I fear, is that American Christians’ response can be based more on the interests of empire and politics than on their identity as part of the Body of Christ.  

In Armenia’s neighborhood, the U.S. seeks to block the influence of its rival empire, Russia. In that effort, Turkey and Azerbaijan are indispensable allies, and Azerbaijan receives U.S. military aid. Sadly, these interests tend to shape how American Christians see the region, too. More precisely, they tend to keep us from seeing it at all.

“This is the least I can do. I’m a News Anchor with no Armenian communities near me."

When Azerbaijan attacked in 2020, the U.S. did almost nothing to help Armenians. This time, the U.S. has forcefully criticized Azerbaijan’s aggression – a welcome development. But American Christian political advocacy seems to have had almost nothing to do with this.

I suspect as well that many Christians simply lack the categories to think about the Armenian question. While the cause of persecuted Christians often stirs our hearts, the Armenian case does not match the scenarios about “persecution” that we have built in our heads. Are pastors being thrown in jail? No. Are Bibles being confiscated? No. Are terrorists or angry dictators raving against Christianity? No. (The Azerbaijani dictatorship is strongly secular). 

Yet this fact remains: an ancient Christian people is on the edge of a (second) genocide. If our categories can’t deal with that, maybe something is wrong with our categories.

And it is worth asking: is it a coincidence that our categories fit the American imperial gaze so well? Why do we tend to think of persecuted Christians only as saintly victims, who have no power on their own to affect politics? Why is it that the moment they have their own state, their own army, their own voice, as the Armenians do, they jump categories and become a problem for our imperial administrators to deal with?

What does being part of the Body of Christ mean when one of its oldest parts is under attack?

The week of the latest attack, while the U.S.’s national news networks were saying almost nothing about it, an Armenian news anchor in Sioux City, Iowa, managed to get a minute-long segment about the war onto his station’s nightly broadcast. He commented, “This is the least I can do. I’m a News Anchor with no Armenian communities near me. …I hope today’s coverage brought attention to a subject many non-Armenians might not know about.”

That hit me.

I was born in Sioux Center, Iowa, a scant forty-five minutes from Sioux City. That’s also where I attended college. True, there are no Armenian communities there – but the area is overwhelmingly, deeply Christian.

Why should this news anchor feel alone there?

What does being part of the Body of Christ mean when one of its oldest parts is under attack? How should we live out the Apostle Paul’s admonition to “do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers,” as a genocide of Christians looms?

I do not have perfect answers to these questions. But we dare not fail to ask them. Not now.

Photo courtesy Christian Solidarity International.  Art in Yerevan last year - of a young man named Abraham Sargsian, who was killed in Azerbaijan’s 2020 invasion of Nagorno-Karabakh.


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