Christian Witness After War: A Firsthand Assessment of Armenia and Azerbaijan

Written by on March 31, 2022

Ibrahim Baghirov died as an infant. His mother, Mary, had read in the Gospels about Jesus and Lazarus, so she prayed for God to raise her child from the dead. He did, she says. Doctors in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, confirmed the miracle to her, which also confirmed her fledgling faith as a Muslim-background christian.

Two decades later, Baghirov is an emerging preacher in the church that meets in the family’s home.

But in September 2020, as Azerbaijan launched what would become a 44-day war against neighboring Armenia, Mary’s faith faltered. Having once trusted God where medicine failed, she hastily made her son an appointment for an unnecessary surgery in hopes of keeping him from conscription. He gently rebuked her.

“I will go wherever God takes me,” said Baghirov, now 26 years old. “There are ways to keep me here, but there will be no blessing in that.”

He deployed within weeks to the front lines in the snowcapped peaks of Nagorno-Karabakh, a swath of land about the size of Delaware that is encircled by present-day Azerbaijan and has been contested for centuries.

Along the way, Baghirov said he received a word from God: None of his fellow soldiers would die, and he would be their minister. His country is predominantly Muslim, and several of his comrades shunned him after his pocket New Testament fell from his backpack. Others asked questions, though, and became friends.

Azerbaijan, with a reputation as one of the most secular countries in the Muslim world, is tolerant of its long-established christian minority community. But its long-standing animosities toward christian Armenia are a different story.

The two countries’ generations-old dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh—a majority-Armenian territory whose modern borders were established in 1923 when Joseph Stalin made it part of Azerbaijan—has been fierce. The worst atrocities of the early 20th century killed thousands, leveling villages and leaving blood on both Armenian and Azeri hands. Relations were more neighborly for several decades, until the Soviet Union disintegrated and triggered a new round of massacres beginning in the late 1980s. Thousands were displaced from their homes as each nation purged its opposing ethnic minority, while Armenia depopulated a buffer zone around the territory to protect it from attacks.

In 1991, Nagorno-Karabakh voted for independence, and Armenia-backed forces eventually secured control of the region, dubbing it the Republic of Artsakh. (Neither Azerbaijan nor the international community has recognized Artsakh’s sovereignty.) Skirmishes between the countries smoldered for decades during a languishing peace process led by the US, France, and Russia.

But in 2020, Azerbaijan conscripted soldiers and advanced on the territory in yet another conflict. Baghirov was assigned to an artillery unit, a post that spared his tender pastoral heart from one adversity, at least: He would not engage in direct combat against the fellow Christians he and his military were slowly overtaking.

But Baghirov said he heard another word from God, another promise: Not one Armenian would die from his hand.

On the other side of the lines, shivering in the snow, fighters in an Armenian unit were also talking to God. An embedded priest from the Apostolic Church, the national church of Armenians, carried a relic of the holy cross and encouraged them as they knelt. They beseeched God for their fellow soldiers, surrounded by Azerbaijani forces and pounded by missiles and suicide drones.

“Don’t lose hope,” said Menuk Zeynalyan. “Our struggle is for our holy church and holy land.”

A married father of four, Zeynalyan left a comfortable parish among the Armenian minority in the neighboring nation of Georgia and signed up for military chaplaincy in 2019. Before the war, he led soldiers in three weekly Bible lessons. Many came from irreligious homes, raised by parents under the banner of Soviet atheism. But within two months, he said, everyone knew the catechism.

His highlight was the prayer of dedication prior to the soldier’s oath. Before swearing the secular pledge to defend the nation, Zeynalyan tied their patriotism to the Lord. After all, tradition had it that Thaddeus and Bartholomew preached the gospel in Armenia. And their country had become the world’s first officially christian nation in the year 301, long before the Roman Empire followed suit.

Miraculously, Zeynalyan’s prayers were answered, and his beleaguered colleagues emerged from the battle unscathed. Zeynalyan said he witnessed many examples of divine intervention in 2020. He was at the Ghazanchetsots Cathedral in the city of Shusha—known to Armenians as Shushi—on October 8, when two missiles struck within five hours in an attack Human Rights Watch deemed a possible war crime.

In early December 2020—with the Armenian lines broken and at least 6,000 soldiers confirmed killed—a Russia-brokered ceasefire ended hostilities. Shusha, the crown jewel of Nagorno-Karabakh, was back under Azerbaijani control, and their military was poised to seize the regional capital of Khankendi, known to Armenians as Stepanakert.

“It was pure joy to recapture our land,” Baghirov said. “For three decades, it was a heavy burden in our hearts, and finally our people can return to their homes.”

Officially, however, it is a ceasefire and not a capitulation. Armenia maintains control over Stepanakert and about a third of the disputed territory, protected by Russian peacekeepers. And while the mood is somber in the Armenian capital of Yerevan, about five hours away, Zeynalyan keeps his faith.

“No matter how much land we lose,” the chaplain said, “we are God’s people and will remain here until the second coming of Christ.”

Christianity Today spoke with more than two dozen sources during a visit to both nations one year after the war. It’s an open question how, if at all, they will reconcile their intense differences.

But for a few Christians in Armenia and Azerbaijan, a more personal question nags. Isn’t there a unity in Christ that transcends geopolitical grievances?

And if there is, should Christians wait for their governments to make peace? Or should they start themselves, by making peace with fellow believers behind enemy lines?

For hundreds of years, the Caucasus region has been pressed between the ambitions of Russia to the north, Persia to the south, and Turkey to the west. The Armenian and Azerbaijani national identities were molded in that friction, to very different ends.

After the fall of the Soviet Union and the shuttering of Russian factories in Armenia, the majority Oriental Orthodox country struggled to develop a democracy. It slowly grew its economy and largely rid itself of Russian-era corruption during its famously peaceful Velvet Revolution in 2018.

Oil-rich Azerbaijan, on the other hand, boomed: It built pipelines to Europe, strengthened relations with the West, and secured military-grade drones from Turkey and Israel, despite being panned by international watchdogs as a human rights–violating autocracy.

All the while, Armenians and Azeris kept a wary eye on one another.

Consider Nune Balayan, an Armenian speech therapist and mother of three. Her family was displaced from Shushi after more than 10 generations in the area. She once lived in a three-story home. Now her family huddles around a stove furnace in a lower-class neighborhood of Yerevan.

“Azerbaijanis have good masks and show themselves very nice, but they are vandals from the day of their birth,” she said. “I don’t believe the words about coexistence and peace—they have so many lies.”

Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, has consistently spoken of his desire to integrate Nagorno-Karabakh and its Armenian citizens into his nation’s economy and society. His administration says Armenia should return the part of the territory it’s still holding onto, then prosper in good relations.

But Balayan is not buying it. For one, she worries about Aliyev’s close alliance with Turkey, the Muslim powerhouse on Armenia’s other border that perpetuated a genocide against her people a century ago. Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, disputes this event as civil conflict and “reasonable” deportations.

Then there is the rhetoric closer to home. During Azerbaijan’s campaign against COVID-19, it issued a postage stamp in which a HAZMAT-suited figure resembling an exterminator sprayed the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, paired with a soldier. And until it was removed last October following Armenia’s lodging of a lawsuit at the International Court of Justice, a “war trophies” park in Baku displayed the helmets of dead soldiers and caricatured mannequins of captured Armenians.

For people like Balayan, it echoes horrific childhood memories from when Soviet Azerbaijan controlled Shushi. She says her math teacher was decapitated by Azeris when he went into the forest to retrieve his goat. She says an Azeri godfather to an Armenian child later murdered the boy. And after Azeris were driven from her family’s village, she says Armenian residents discovered a kill list in the cabinet of the local Azeri doctor.

As for Armenia’s recent loss, Balayan believes it is ultimately due to the nation’s present-day aping of Western culture. “God is disciplining us for going away from him,” she said. “Armenia doesn’t have friends, so our strength has to come from him.”

Balayan’s people weren’t the only ones driven from their homes, though. So was Salman Babayev. Two decades ago, he and his Azeri family fled the town of Agdam near Nagorno-Karabakh. Now they live in one of the “little Karabakh” refugee ghettos in Baku, which lies on the Black Sea coast. His country is back in control of his village, laboring to remove land mines and rebuild infrastructure, and Babayev is one of tens of thousands of people planning to return to the region.

He recalls things differently from when he lived in the contested region.

“Our Armenian neighbors cried when we parted,” he said. “‘Why did they destroy our land?’ they lamented. ‘We were living here together, peacefully.’”

He pointed to the injustices his own people have suffered, injustices others have documented in photographs. Faig Hajiyev, a tour guide in Agdam, shows visitors the local mosque. Unlike the surrounding city, it is still standing, but sullied: He points out bullet holes in its prayer niche and shows pictures of cows roaming inside.

“As a person, not even as a Muslim, this is offensive,” he said. “But Azerbaijan is a very tolerant country. We are ready to open a new page in the book.

Emil Panahov is the kind of man who might be able to help open that new page. The founder of the Vineyard Church in Azerbaijan, he’s seen the best and the worst of what people will do in the name of faith.

He became a christian in 1989 at the age of 12, thanks to the influence of a small Baptist church in Baku. His communist father slapped him for it, but he kept going to church every week.

Then came the first war in Nagorno-Karabakh, in the 1990s. In and around the region, an estimated 30,000 people were killed in interethnic fighting, and 1 million people were displaced—700,000 of them Azerbaijanis.

The displaced who arrived in Baku spoke of Armenian soldiers with crosses on their uniforms who carved the crucifix into the bodies of the dead.

“Back in those days, the accent was on the religiosity of the war, fighting against the christian states,” he said. “It was political baloney, but my family didn’t want people to think I had become an Armenian.”

Panahov’s parents locked him in his room on Sundays. But he climbed down a vine from his third-story window and made it to church anyway.

He never forgot what his people suffered. Panahov’s church, which includes 16 cell groups and 350 total members, stepped up when the second war came in 2020. With permission from the government, his congregation distributed care packages—and Bibles—to deployed soldiers. Later, they visited bereaved families and those whose homes were destroyed by Armenian missile fire.

On the Armenian side of the conflict, firsthand exposure to suffering in the war zone also changed a leader in Armenia’s charismatic movement. The pastor, who requested anonymity, visited Agdam years ago when his son was stationed there as a soldier. He recalled good relations with his Azeri neighbors in Yerevan, and his understanding back then was that the ring of buffer zones around Nagorno-Karabakh, like the one his son was guarding, would eventually be handed back to Azerbaijan in negotiations for the independence of Artsakh.

But the sight of Agdam, a ghost town turned to rubble, unnerved him.

“I realized something was wrong, that we have to admit our wrongdoing,” he said. “But it’s kind of fair, isn’t it? We feel now what they felt then.”

“If we hate, hurt, and demonize each other at the personal level, nations will do it also.” —Harout Nercessian

Leading a church network that claims hundreds of members in four locations, with another four in development (including Artsakh), he said he is “planting seeds of peace and reconciliation” among his people quietly, warning of nationalism and preparing them to give back what isn’t theirs. But he doesn’t often say so in public; it’s very sensitive.

Vazgen Zohrabyan, pastor of Abovyan City Church northeast of Yerevan, also harbors concerns about his people’s attitudes toward Azerbaijan. His congregation of 300 fed 12,000 displaced families during the most recent war.

“I cannot say sorry on behalf of my nation, but we have to face the reality that we made much harm to Azerbaijani civilians,” he said. “Extremists on both sides convinced us that we cannot live together.”

Zohrabyan, who has a master’s degree in political science from Yerevan State University, has plenty of criticisms for the other side. He wishes that Azerbaijan’s president Aliyev would speak to Armenians the way he speaks to the Western press. Instead, the propaganda they hear calls Armenians “dogs” and “rats” and undoes the tolerant perception Azerbaijan likes to maintain internationally.

But Zohrabyan feels there is reason to hope. Azerbaijan’s cozy relationship with Turkey, for instance, may not be as menacing as Armenians fear. Turkey is more than the genocide, Zohrabyan reminds his congregation—carefully. He says they don’t have to be enemies: For centuries Armenians lived peacefully with Turks, until World War I–era political meddling by Russia sparked accusations of betrayal.

Abovyan City Church, in fact, has played a role in a quiet but burgeoning movement of reconciliation, bringing Turkish believers into fellowship with Armenian evangelicals.

And the two nations exchanged envoys in December to explore a path toward normalized relations. Negotiations have so far led to the February resumption of charter flights between Yerevan and Istanbul for the first time in two years.

“We will be in heaven one day, and I will sit next to my brothers from Armenia.” —Emil Panahov

But can the spiritual bridge-building with Turks be replicated to unite Armenians and Azerbaijanis? Some pastors are trying. One told CT about holding Zoom meetings between Armenian and Azerbaijani believers during the war. Others mentioned interactions at international evangelical conferences prior to the 2020 war, with mixed emotions.

During a time of sharing at the podium, Zohrabyan recalled that at a meeting in Georgia, a group of Azerbaijani pastors delivered an accusatory statement about Nagorno-Karabakh.

“Their behavior was awful,” Zohrabyan said. “When they heard I was Armenian, they changed the table where they were eating and moved away.”

Armenian church leaders have engaged in their own political theater, said Panahov, the Vineyard pastor in Azerbaijan. He remembers a conference he was attending in South Korea, where he says an Armenian pastor stepped to the podium, misrepresented photos of modern Armenian atrocities as the genocide, and asked Turkish believers to stand and apologize.

Panahov was aghast. He had hoped at this conference to extend his hand to fellow pastors across the border, and he felt rejected.

“It has become hard to preach the gospel in Azerbaijan,” he told the assembly after asking those from Armenia to stand. “Because the policy of your country is unchristian.”

His words made a difference. Three pastors came up to him afterward and apologized, offering to wash his feet as they cried together.

Panahov says he longs for this kind of restoration. “I don’t want people to fight over land; I want them to fight spiritual battles,” he said. “In any case, we will be in heaven one day, and I will sit next to my brothers from Armenia.”

While Panahov backs the justness of the Azerbaijani cause, he regrets his government used “the violence of the weapon” to take back the land. Ultimately, he said, it belongs to neither nation, but to God.

But the 2020 conflict did have one very positive consequence in his eyes: “It was open season for the gospel.”

To counter Armenian appeals that the conflict was a religious war, Azerbaijan sought to leverage its small christian population. Early on, the government engaged the Bible Society of Azerbaijan to gather christian leaders to write an open letter in support of the cause. It included signatures from 22 evangelical pastors. Panahov was one of them.

Historically, Christianity was restricted mostly to the country’s ethnic Russian and Russian Orthodox communities. But now, according to Samir Sadigov, general secretary of the Baptist Union, the Azerbaijani government mostly leaves evangelical converts alone. Today his denomination counts about 2,000 believers meeting in three buildings and 22 house churches.

Sadigov also supported the open letter when the government contacted him, since Armenia was making Azerbaijan out to be “a wild Muslim country.” The truth couldn’t be more different, he said, and it demanded his signature. Sadigov noted, for instance, that following the death of a Baptist pastor from COVID-19, authorities are now working with him to establish Azerbaijan’s first Protestant cemetery.

“Once, there was some sort of spiritual power behind the government that didn’t want Christianity to spread in Azerbaijan,” said Rasim Khalilov, director of the Bible Society. “Now they understand that Christians are not bad, and appeal to them.”

The Soviets branded evangelicals as sectarian, but local authorities began to warm to such believers in 2005, Khalilov noted. And for the past few years, the society has distributed 5,500 scriptures among the approximately 150,000 Christians in Azerbaijan, including citizens of Russian ethnicity. He estimates 20,000 of these are evangelicals. All materials except the full Bible are printed locally, with translations in Azerbaijani, Russian, Hebrew, Udi—a minority christian group tracing back to the ancient Caucasian Albanian people—and two other local languages.

“The most important thing is that both government and people understand that Azeris can be Christians,” he said, “and the state has played a very positive role.”

This includes Muslim authorities, who engage the Bible society in dialogue.

“Maybe you internally think about why he or she became a christian,” said Salman Musayev, vice chairman of the Board of Caucasus Muslims, the official Islamic entity in Azerbaijan. “But no one can influence or punish [a person] for choosing a different belief.”

Last October, Musayev participated in an 18th round of negotiations with Armenia’s Apostolic Church that were aimed at settling some of the two nation’s differences. Much of the discussion centered on the preservation of religious heritage sites now under Azerbaijani control, such as the fifth-century Dadivank Monastery.

Other sites have changed hands also, and the Azerbaijani government has since formed a committee to document alleged inscriptions of what it calls “Armenian forgeries.

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