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‘Do people know our plight?’ refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh ask Archbishop Welby

06 October 2023

Francis Martin reports from Armenia

Neil Turner/Lambeth Palace

Refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh wait to speak with the Archbishop of Canterbury in a building owned by the Armenian Orthodox Church at Kecharis in the Tsaghkadzor Province, where they are now residing having fled their homes

Refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh wait to speak with the Archbishop of Canterbury in a building owned by the Armenian Orthodox Church at Kecharis in the ...

REFUGEES from Nagorno-Karabakh have told the Archbishop of Canterbury of their devastation at being forced from their homeland. The Archbishop assured them that they were not forgotten.

Almost the entire population of Nagorno-Karabakh — amounting to more than 100,000 people — is thought to have left the territory since a one-day assault by Azerbaijan on 19 September (News, 21 September).

On Friday, about 80 refugees gathered to meet and pray with Archbishop Welby, who was in Armenia at the end of a tour of the Caucasus, which included a visit to Azerbaijan and a meeting with its president (News, 6 October). Also with Archbishop Welby were the Armenian Orthodox Archbishop of Kotayk, Araqel Karamyan, and other Armenian church leaders, in Tsaghkadzor province, in the north of Armenia.

“You are the most important people in this story. If Jesus was here physically, he would look to you as the centre of the room, not to archbishops,” Archbishop Welby said, adding that he had come “to learn and to listen”.

“I want to make sure that, in Europe and around the world, you are remembered; in the Church, that you’re prayed for; and that people know what you’ve been through, and what you’re suffering.”

After last month’s assault, refugees from the enclave have dispersed across Armenia. As many as 120 are being hosted in a building owned by the Armenian Orthodox Church, situated above the town of Kecharis. It is normally used for summer camps for children and young people, but, since the September exodus, it has been given over to the refugees, who range from young children to the elderly.

The Archbishop knelt to speak with some of the refugees, and told one six-year-old girl that he would ask his own six-year-old grandson to pray for her specifically.

One woman asked Archbishop Welby whether people in England knew about the plight of people from Nagorno-Karabakh. “I’ll be honest: no”, he replied. “But when they know, they care. That is why I came here to listen to you.”

The government of Armenia has provided one-off payments for the refugees, and institutions and individuals are helping to provide accommodation. For many, the future remains uncertain.

The President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, has suggested that the ethnically Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh should be “reintegrated” into Azerbaijan. But the prospect of returning was far from most people’s minds on Friday. “Why would we expose our children and grandchildren experience to that?” one asked.

Almost everyone saw their future either in Armenia or in the West. Of those we spoke to, only 16-year-old Gor believed that he would soon be back living in his homeland, but not side by side with Azerbaijanis: his dream was the recapture of Nagorno-Karabakh by Armenia.

Gor’s father was killed in Nagorno-Karabakh in the 2020 war, and he was not the only person present who had lost a close family member in the long-running conflict. Edward, also aged 16, told the Church Times that his 22-year-old brother had been killed on 19 September in the Azerbaijani offensive.

BBC News has reported that at least 200 Armenian Karabakhs and “dozens” of Azerbaijanis were killed in the fighting, mostly members of the armed forces.

 

AT THE end of the meeting with refugees on Friday, Archbishop Welby apologised for his inability to speak the local language. He referred to Lord Byron’s description of Armenian as “the language of God”. He offered to pray in English instead, and one of the local priests translated his words.

Speaking afterwards, Archbishop Welby reflected: “These are people who are caught up in events beyond their control. However skilled, they can do nothing for themselves, and that is a terrible place for a human being to be in.”

The long history of conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh meant that “the bitterness and the hatreds go very deep indeed,” he said. “The difficulty of resolving this is beyond imagination.”

Asked what he felt his visit could achieve, Archbishop Welby admitted: “I felt pretty powerless myself. But, according to the local archbishop, they felt that it was good that they were remembered, and that is one of the key things: it reduces the sense of isolation.”

Edward was grateful that the Archbishop had made time to visit. “It’s very beautiful that he visited our people and listened to what we communicated,” he said afterward.

Another refugee, who did not want to be named, said that the Armenian Orthodox Church’s support helped them to “feel safe”. “Maybe they will help us to overcome this, and build our lives again,” she said.

 

NAGORNO-KARABAKH is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan, but has long been ruled autonomously, both under the Soviet Union, and then after the two countries fought a war over the enclave in the early 1990s.

After Armenia’s victory in the war, almost all of the Azerbaijani population of Nagorno-Karabakh fled to Azerbaijan, where they have the status of “internally displaced people”.

A second war, in 2020, ended with Azerbaijan gaining effective control of much of the territory, but about 120,000 Armenian Karabakhs were left governing the area as the Republic of Artsakh.

Since December last year, Azerbaijan has been blockading the territory, leading to food and medicine shortages. Edward described conditions under the blockade as “very hard”. His grandfather, also called Edward, said that, while it lasted, they felt that it was the worst that could happen, not expecting that fighting would break out again.

The 24-hour assault, in which Edward’s brother was killed, ended with a ceasefire, and talks were held between the Armenian Karabakh leaders and Azerbaijan. Several public figures connected with the Artsakh government have been detained in Baku as they attempted to leave the enclave, which is now thought to be almost empty.

During this week, Archbishop Welby has met the leaders of both sides — President Aliyev in Baku and the Armenian President and Deputy Foreign Minister.

It had been hoped that President Aliyev and the Prime Minister of Armenia, Nikol Pashinyan, would engage in talks on Thursday, in Grenada, but disagreements about Turkey’s presence at the meeting meant that these hopes came to nothing.

Archbishop Welby returns from South Caucasus tomorrow, Saturday, having also visited Georgia before travelling overland through the mountains to Armenia on Wednesday. The Church Times has accompanied him on the journey.

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