BErgkarabakh is a predominantly Armenian region in the southeast of the Caucasus – and has been controversial for many years between Armenia and Turkey-backed Azerbaijan. The most recent war between the two ex-Soviet republics began on September 27 and lasted until November 9; In the end, Armenia suffered significant territorial losses.
Bishop Serovpe Isakhanyan heads the diocese of the Armenian Church in Germany. He explains the importance of Nagorno-Karabakh – and how the conflict can affect life in the Federal Republic.
WORLD: Despite the losses in Nagorno-Karabakh, will this Christmas, which you and your church celebrate only in January, be a festival of joy, Mr. Isakhanyan?
Serovpe isakhanyan: Of course. Even if we have suffered losses, Christmas remains the festival of hope and love that we celebrate on January 5th and 6th. On these days it was always a special joy when our church was overcrowded and we celebrated the birth of Jesus together. Of course, that won’t work this time because of Corona.
WORLD: Why is Nagorno-Karabakh so important to the Armenian Apostolic Church?
Light: We Armenians are an old people, our story begins in the highlands around Mount Ararat, but mostly we did not have a state of our own. We suffered the greatest loss of our homeland as a result of the genocide by Ottoman Turkey in 1915, when the entire people were uprooted from their homeland.
We have only a very small part left, the current Republic of Armenia on the territory of the former Soviet Republic of Armenia. And another small part, namely the autonomous region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which was handed over to Azerbaijan when the Soviet Union was formed, although more than 90 percent of Armenians lived there at the time.
Since Azerbaijan has since tried to get this area under control – also by letting its own citizens move there in order to change the population situation – the Nagorno-Karabakh question is for us a question of preserving our own identity and physical existence.
WORLD: What consequences does the expulsion of tens of thousands of Armenians from the conquered parts of Nagorno-Karabakh have for the Armenian Apostolic Church?
Light: It is of course first about the displacement and loss of people, but also about traces. Important monasteries and churches such as Dadiwank and emblematic monuments of our long history are located there. We fear that all traces of our history will be erased in the conquered areas, as we only saw in Nakhchivan 15 years ago.
There all Armenian churches and monuments were destroyed. Unfortunately, the Karabakh Armenians could not withstand the Azerbaijani troops backed by Turkey and their mercenaries and suffered a heavy defeat in the autumn. Unfortunately, this happened under the silence of the world community.
WORLD: Do you feel abandoned by Germany or the EU?
Light: I can answer yes to this question. Azerbaijan is a kind of family dictatorship; Armenia is relatively democratic for this region of the world and tries to build a democracy on a European scale. We were sure that Europe would support us in the event of a conflict. Instead, the crimes of Azerbaijan and Erdogan’s Turkey were largely kept silent. Now a third of Karabakh is occupied.
WORLD: In terms of international law, Karabakh belongs to Azerbaijan …
Light: Of course, it was assigned to this state under international law, including the surrounding security zone, but such historical decisions can also be questioned. The Armenians recognize the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, but Karabakh is indisputably closely linked to Armenian history and was never part of Azerbaijan before the Soviet era.
But that’s not my point at all, I’m not an international lawyer. It is about maintaining the identity of the people whose ancestors have lived in this area for millennia.
WORLD: Can you forgive the Azerbaijanis for fighting the Armenians? What does the personal and Christian category of forgiveness actually mean on a political level?
Light: You know, it’s way too early to talk about forgiveness. The wounds are very fresh, they keep bleeding. I don’t know when they will heal, not yet. Forgiveness is an essential principle of Christianity, but it still takes a few steps. Azerbaijan sees itself as the winner, Armenia is the defeated victim.
The children in Azerbaijan learn from an early age that Armenians are enemies and aggressors. Today’s child is tomorrow’s soldier, we see the fruits of the hatred sown in the filmed beheading of an Armenian prisoner and the subsequent dissemination on the Internet. My faith tells me that enmity does not lead to anything good and that we will eventually be reconciled with the Azerbaijani.
WORLD: From your theological perspective, how do you bring together the call to renounce violence and the necessary willingness to defend states?
Light: We have to differentiate. The renunciation of violence between human and human is elementary for Christian teaching. But when it comes to the preservation of one’s own being, the physical existence of one’s own state or people, defense is required. Armenians, Azerbaijanis and Turks are all beloved creatures of God and we should treat one another not with violence but with love.
But we are all not just individuals, but parts of our peoples who have a history of conflict with one another. Personally, I have nothing to do with the Armenian genocide in 1915, my personal ancestors were not affected either, they lived in Persia (Iran), but I share this collective experience of my people.
WORLD: Apart from all this interweaving of the Armenian collective identity with your church, is the Christian faith still very strong among the Armenians in Germany?
Light: Most of the more than 70,000 Armenians in the Federal Republic of Germany have their children baptized, marry in church and occasionally attend church services. In terms of their external form, they are part of the Church. Unfortunately, we also feel that many have inwardly distanced themselves from their faith.
WORLD: In November you wrote to several interior ministers that Azerbaijani and Turkish nationalists were inciting against Armenians and had also thrown threatening letters in mailboxes …
Read the letter from the bishop to North Rhine-Westphalia’s interior minister here
Light: That has calmed down again since the armistice was agreed. But as soon as the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh flares up again or the question of the Armenian genocide is back on the political agenda somewhere, these nationalist impulses are activated.
In July, during a battle in Nagorno-Karabakh, an official car of the Armenian embassy in Berlin was set on fire in front of the embassy building. An Armenian bar was attacked in Cologne. Unfortunately, threatening letters to private addresses were added from September on, which we didn’t have before.
I was informed by some families in Hamburg, Hesse and Bavaria who had received messages that they knew where the children were playing and that they would soon be crying at their graves and the like. Many families were also afraid to file charges.
Light: They thought that this could increase the hatred of the threatening letter writers if they found out that a complaint had been made against them. The reason was not a lack of trust in the police, but fear for the children. Fortunately, I haven’t received any further threats in weeks.