Fleeing Armenian refugees seek help to reclaim their homeland and preserve their Christian history

Susan Korah

The 100,000 Armenians who fled en masse after Azerbaijan seized control of Nagorno-Karabakh – the enclave known to Armenians as Artsakh – last September are now facing a bitter winter as homeless refugees in Armenia.

They and their Church leaders are urgently seeking Canada’s and the international community’s help in reclaiming their homeland and retrieving their Christian history and heritage in Artsakh, which they fear is being deliberately destroyed by Azerbaijan.

Grieving the loss of their beloved homeland, and haunted by fears of an erasure of their 1,700-year-old history as a Christian nation in Artsakh, their collective anguish can only be described by the Welsh word “hiraeth” (a mixture of yearning, nostalgia, wistfulness and an intense longing for a lost homeland.)

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“It’s now over three months since I lost my home,” Siranush Sargsyan, from Stepanakert, Artsakh’s capital, told me. “At the beginning (of the exodus), most people were relieved to be still alive. But now we are going through another stage. We can’t accept the reality that we can’t go back home.”

Sargsyan is an Armenian journalist who has documented through her own experience the persecution and ethnic cleansing of her people by Azerbaijan. Like the thousands who fled Artsakh, she now lives as a refugee in Armenia.

Archbishop Papken Tcharian, Prelate of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Canada, and Archbishop Anoushavan Tanielian, Prelate of the Eastern U.S., appealed to political leaders and the worldwide Christian community for help.

“I appeal to fellow Christian churches to raise their voice and support Armenia, the first nation to adopt Christianity in the year 301 AD as a state religion,” said Tcharian. “Otherwise, the confiscated churches, monasteries and khachkars (Armenian crosses) of Artsakh will be desecrated by Azerbaijan, and the authorities of Baku will distort the history of Armenian Christian Artsakh. In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., ‘In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.’”

Tanielian exhorted the international community to take a lesson from past genocides, including that of Armenians in 1915, and from the ongoing persecution of Christians elsewhere, to stop the aggressors’ actions before it’s too late.

“The best and most effective step the international community and Canada can take, without any delay, is to put into practice the same measures that they usually apply to despots: freezing all the assets of the corrupt government of Azerbaijan; establishing sanctions over their resources, and implementing all resolutions by international bodies,” he said.

He called on Canada to take a leading role in helping to restore the rights of the people of Artsakh.

“The Canadian government is well-positioned to play an important role in this regard,” he said. “It provided a substantial amount of money via the Red Cross in the first days after the forced evacuation – better to say ‘ethnic cleansing’ or even ‘genocidal attempt’ – of the population of Artsakh.”

He praised Canada’s role in stopping the sale of arms in 2022 to Azerbaijan’s allies that are “bent on erasing the Christian presence in the land of Mount Ararat.” (The mountain where Noah’s Ark is believed to have come to rest).

The sense of loss washed over Sargsyan and her countrymen with particular intensity on Jan. 6 when Armenians – most of whom belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church, an Orthodox Christian denomination – celebrated Christmas.

“Today is Armenian Christmas, and it’s very important to celebrate it at home with family and friends,” she said. “But now we don’t have a home – a homeland, yes, but not a home.”

Christmas, even under bombardment, is preferable to one without a home, she continued.

“Last year, we celebrated Christmas under siege,” she said. “And we thought it was the most difficult ever, but this year is even worse.”

The destruction of their tangible Christian heritage, and the fear of erasure of their 1,700-year history in Artsakh caused by Azerbaijan’s revisionist policies, is another source of excruciating pain, she emphasized.

“One year ago, Christmas was under siege in Artsakh, but at least in the homeland. Now our churches in Artsakh stand silent, devoid of prayers and liturgy,” Sargsyan said.

“We have not only lost our homeland, our homes, memories, but also the cultural heritage of our millennial history,” she continued, adding that dozens of churches, as well as tens of thousands of khachkars and tombstones, have been razed to the ground.

She misses the beauty of the landscape, the rhythm of life in the village where she grew up and the iconic Amaras monastery, one of the oldest Christian monasteries in the world.

“I grew up near the Amaras monastery built in the fourth century where Mesro Mashtots, the monk, opened the first Armenian school and developed the Armenian alphabet,” she said. “It’s in the Amaras valley and surrounded by mulberry orchards and vineyards, where we worked and eagerly waited for the autumn harvest. It was a family tradition, which we have also lost. All our memories and traditions have been destroyed.”

Although warmly received by her compatriots in Armenia, she, like other refugees, is grappling with financial problems and physical hardship since arriving with little more than the clothes on their backs.

“If we were lucky, we could bring some documents but not much else. The government (of Armenia) and some international organizations provide some help, but it’s nowhere near enough for our basic needs,” she said.

The onset of winter, the lack of winter clothing and fuel for heating homes, not to mention inflated rental prices due to the influx of Russian refugees escaping the war with Ukraine, are multiplying the burdens of a traumatized community, she added.

Susan Korah is an Ottawa-based journalist. This article was submitted by The Catholic Register.

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