THE Bishops of Coventry, Leeds, and Southwark have called for “lasting peace” in Nagorno-Karabakh, after the latest assault on the territory by Azerbaijani forces.
In a joint statement on Wednesday, the Bishops wrote: “Our hearts grieve for all those caught up in the latest violence in Nagorno-Karabakh and we appeal for lasting peace. We pray for everyone whose lives and livelihoods are at risk, and those for whom this is the latest in a long and tragic cycle of suffering.”
Vatican News reported that Pope Francis, speaking about the issue at an audience with pilgrims on Wednesday, said: “The already critical humanitarian situation is now aggravated by additional armed clashes.”
A ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh was agreed on Wednesday afternoon, the day after Azerbaijan had launched an offensive against the region, a contested enclave in the South Caucasus. It follows a ten-month blockade by Azerbaijan, which has prevented supplies from being delivered from Armenia.
The Bishops’ statement called for access for international aid agencies to Nagorno-Karabakh “so they can do their vital work of providing humanitarian relief and support to all those in need”.
A delegation led by the World Council of Churches (WCC), and including the general secretary, the Revd Professor Jerry Pillay, was in the area when Azerbaijani forces began what their government described as “anti-terror” measures on Tuesday.
On Tuesday evening, before the ceasefire was agreed between officials in Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan, Professor Pillay called on the government of Azerbaijan to “engage in genuine and meaningful dialogue with the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh for a just and sustainable peace in full compliance with international humanitarian and human-rights law”.
Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan, but has a majority Armenian population and operates autonomously as the Republic of Arstakh, which is not recognised by any UN member states, but is supported by Armenia. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Armenia and Azerbaijan have fought two wars over the area, most recently in 2020.
The ecumenical group was in Armenian territory at the entrance to the Lachin Corridor, which is the only route between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.
The Lachin Corridor has been under blockade by Azerbaijan since last December. In January, the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams and the Bishop of Coventry, Dr Christopher Cocksworth, signed a statement deploring the “lamentable failure of the international community to resolve the continuing war of terror being waged by Azerbaijan, with a medieval style siege, inflicted in the 21st century”.
This month, Lord Williams wrote about the situation for the Telegraph, observing that “more than 120,000 Christian Armenians [were] under siege”.
“The Azerbaijani blockade in the Lachin Corridor goes unchecked and the region faces a genocide,” he wrote.
According to the WCC, on Tuesday morning, two trucks carrying aid from the International Committee of the Red Cross were able to enter the territory; but, soon afterwards, shooting began.
In a video message on Tuesday afternoon, Professor Pillay said: “We have come as far as we possibly can go. We can’t go any further, and we appreciate that the soldiers and the Church consider it highly risky for us to proceed; so we will not proceed.”
The scale of the casualties remains unclear. On Wednesday, The Guardian cited local authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh who said that 27 people had been killed in the offensive, and more than 200 wounded.
A former head of the local government, however, suggested that more than 100 people had been killed. In a post on social media, the Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh Human Rights Ombudsman wrote that “there are at least 200 deaths and more than 400 wounded persons.”
The ceasefire agreement is reported to involve the complete disarmament of forces in Nagorno-Karabakh, and further talks were due to take place on the “reintegration” of the region into Azerbaijan.
Tom de Waal, a senior fellow at think tank Carnegie Europe and an expert on the region, told the podcast Caucasus Digest on Wednesday that Azerbaijan had “used this military operation . . . in order to coerce the Karabakh Armenians into talking about the terms of its surrender”.