Episcopalians experience conflict in real time as they bear witness to Armenian Christians’ struggles

By Lynette Wilson
Posted Sep 30, 2022

[Episcopal News Service] Earlier this month, following the World Council of Churches 11th Assembly, the Rt. Rev. Mark Edington, bishop of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe, and the Rev. Margaret Rose, The Episcopal Church’s ecumenical and interreligious deputy to the presiding bishop, traveled to Armenia as part of a small Churches for Middle East Peace delegation to learn about the modern challenges Armenian Christians face.

“The purpose of the trip was to stand in solidarity with Armenian Christians to become better educated about the ongoing war between Armenia and Azerbaijan,” the Rev. Mae Elise Cannon, executive director of Churches for Middle East Peace, told Episcopal News Service. “Little did we know we would be ‘in the middle’ of the conflict as we awoke the first day to the news of towns on the Armenian border having been attacked.”

As the full delegation arrived on Sept. 13 in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, news agencies were reporting some 100 troops had been killed in a long-contested region on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border.

The attacks provoked fears that long-standing hostilities between the two former Soviet republics – they share a border in the mountainous Caucasus region straddling Europe and Asia — would be reignited. Though officially a secular nation, a majority of Azerbaijan’s 10 million citizens identify as Muslim. Ninety-seven percent of Armenia’s 3 million inhabitants identify with the Armenian Apostolic Church, one of the oldest Christian churches, though at least twice as many Armenians live in the diaspora, with significant numbers in Russia, Iran, Georgia, and farther away in France and the United States.

The story of Armenia, dating back to the Russo-Persian war of 1878, “is basically a story of the steady whittling down of the national space to a relatively small part of what once was sort of dominated by Armenian culture, and that’s why you have these islands of Armenian people living in countries that are not Armenia,” Edington, who oversees one congregation to the east in Tbilisi, Georgia, told ENS.

In the early 20th century, over a million Armenian Christians were killed or forced to flee Turkey in what is now more widely recognized as genocide, including by the United States. The dead are commemorated annually on April 24, marking the start of the genocide in 1915, on Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, which the General Convention of The Episcopal Church voted to place on the church’s calendar, Lesser Feasts and Fasts, in 2006.

It was the ethnic and religious persecution of Armenians that created a large diaspora, including in Jerusalem’s Old City, though, Armenians fled the Caucasus region in greater numbers between 1914-1923, around the time of the genocide.

The more recent conflict is decades old and concerns Nagorno-Karabakh. The region is part of Azerbaijan but has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia since a separatist war there ended in 1994, three years after both nations declared independence from what was then the Soviet Union.

“The history of the Nagorno-Karabakh region, identified as Artsakh by Armenians, goes back to the collapse of the Soviet Union,” Christians for Middle East Peace said in a statement calling for an immediate ceasefire, and further placing the attacks in context. “Armenians see the region as historically Armenian, given the centuries-long presence of Armenian communities, churches and ancient Christian sites.

“Many of these sites have been intentionally destroyed during the two major wars in 1988-1994 and 2020 between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces, including hundreds of churches damaged or demolished and thousands of ancient Armenian crosses carved into stone (khachkars) having been destroyed.”

The importance of preserving this Christian heritage goes beyond Armenia’s immediate borders; Armenian Apostolic Orthodoxy has broader influence.

“Armenia [reflects] the most ancient of Christian traditions; the first nation to be Christian,” Edington told ENS. “The church and its worship is largely unchanged since medieval times.”

That history is a significant part of a larger Christian history, and Armenia preserves it in important ways.

“There are about 12 million Armenians in the world, and about 9 million of them claim membership in the Armenian Church. As a church, we are concerned for a sister church that has seen the destruction of its own heritage, damaged and destroyed contrary to international norms,” he said. “We are making no judgments other than to say we want a just and peaceful settlement between Armenia and Azerbaijan. We can be very clear and say, it is never right to destroy the religious heritage of any country or people.”

Following the attacks in 2020, The Episcopal Church joined its ecumenical partners in prayers for a peaceful end to the conflict. Churches for Middle East Peace, of which The Episcopal Church is a founding member, has had a longstanding relationship with the Armenian Apostolic Church including through our executive board member Archbishop Vicken Aykazian, who serves the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church in America, Cannon said.

Aykazian is a longtime ecumenical partner of The Episcopal Church who was invited to preach at General Convention in 2015.

This month’s delegation traveled at the invitation of Aykazian, who is ethnic Armenian but was born and raised in Jerusalem, where Armenians have occupied a section of the Old City for centuries. They met with religious leaders and government officials and visited monasteries and museums, including the Armenian Genocide Museum, “a powerful, powerful experience,” Rose said.

It is insufficient to limit discussions about building a lasting peace in the Holy Land to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, Rose told Episcopal News Service upon her return to New York and as she prepared to attend offsite meetings during the United Nations General Assembly, including an interfaith conversation with the president of Iran, which also shares a border with Armenia.

In a larger geopolitical context, as reflected in the advocacy work of Churches for Middle East Peace, peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan is important to regional stability. “If you want to build peace, you have to talk about what’s happening in the surrounding region,” Rose said.

As part of its work going forward, Churches for Middle East Peace will advocate for U.S. foreign policy to uphold the 2020 ceasefire agreement, while calling on Azerbaijan to withdraw from the disputed area and calling on both countries to engage in conversations aimed at peace, said Cannon, the executive director.

For more information about Churches for Middle East Peace visit.

–Lynette Wilson is managing editor of Episcopal News Service. She can be reached at lwilson@episcopalchurch.org.