In the terrible annals of the 20th century, two cases of genocide stand out. One of them, the Jewish Holocaust of 1942-1945, has generated an enormous amount of literature. The other—the Turkish massacre of Armenians in 1915-1916—has been largely ignored, except by Armenians themselves. The irony is that his fate was almost a prototype for the mass murder of Jews in Europe. “After all, who is talking today about the annihilation of the Armenians?” Hitler rhetorically asked members of his inner circle at the Berghof shortly before attacking Poland.
The numbers are still disputed, and estimates vary from at least 664,000 to as many as 1.2 million Armenians killed or starved to death by the Turks and their Kurdish auxiliaries. The survivors of the massacre ended up scattered throughout the Middle East and other parts of the world. Other Christian communities also suffered horribly in the last years of the Ottoman Empire. The bloodshed of 1915-1922 destroyed the old Christian groups and cultures that had survived from Roman times, such as the Jacobites, Nestorians, and Chaldeans.
The tragedy of Christian communities under Turkish rule, as Gladstone saw it at the time of the Bulgarian atrocities some four decades earlier, was “not a question of Mohammedanism simply, but of Mohammedanism combined with the peculiar character of a race … Wherever they went, a broad line of blood marked the path behind them, and as far as their domain reached, civilization disappeared from view.
The persecution of Christians culminated in their final expulsion from the newly founded Republic of Turkey in the early 1920s under Mustafa Kemal known as Ataturk, the same man who abolished the caliphate and separated mosque and state. That the final ethnic cleansing was carried out under the banner of resurgent Turkish nationalism, rather than Ottoman imperialism or Islamic intolerance, mattered little to the victims. The end result was the same: churches demolished and communities that used to worship there scattered or dead.
More than a century later, Armenians have their own nation-state, which emerged from the ruins of the Soviet Union, but they are far from safe. The enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh provides a typical example of unresolved ethnic and territorial disputes that have resulted from the arbitrary drawing of internal boundaries between constituent republics by communist leaders of multi-ethnic states in both the Soviet Union and former Yugoslavia Nagorno-Karabakh is an Armenian-inhabited enclave, but Stalin awarded it to the newly formed Azerbaijan Soviet Republic in the 1920s in a clear bid to buy Azeris’ political loyalty to the Soviet state.
When the USSR disintegrated in 1992, the Armenian inhabitants of the enclave were adamant in their refusal to be absorbed into the newly independent Azerbaijan. The same dynamic was at play in Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Donbas and Crimea, where large local majorities did not want to be ruled by successor states that had a legal claim to those lands based on communist-era borders. between the constituent units of the Soviet state.
There was one difference, however: other post-Soviet frozen conflicts did not involve a religious dimension. Most Ossetians, Georgians, Abkhazians, Russians, Ukrainians and Moldovans are Eastern Orthodox Christians. Armenians are also mostly Christians, but their Azeri enemies are Sunni Muslims. This adds an important dimension to the conflict, which is almost inevitably present in many parts of the world where Islam meets non-Islam: the Balkans, Cyprus, Nigeria, Lebanon, Kashmir, Sinkyang, southern the Philippines, etc. unspeakable horrors at the hands of their Muslim neighbors during the Great War, at the time of the disintegration of the USSR, Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians relied on their compatriots in Armenia to prevent their homeland from being absorbed into Azerbaijan .
After an indecisive Azerbaijani-Armenian war, which ended in 1994, nearly two decades of frozen conflict ensued with Armenians controlling the disputed territory. The Azeris launched a successful surprise attack in September 2020 with Turkey’s unreserved support, however, and occupied much of the enclave. This conflict, known as the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, led to a mass exodus of the Armenian population from the territories ceded to Azerbaijan. The Russian-brokered peace deal was rightly seen as a triumph by the Azeris, and probably prevented the “complete destruction of the surviving Armenian forces”.
The 44-day war, as it is also known by both sides, showed Armenia’s acute geostrategic vulnerability. It is a landlocked country of three million people, nestled in just over 11,000 square miles of the South Caucasus, between Georgia, Turkey, Iran and Azerbaijan. Smaller than Maryland and devoid of natural resources, unlike Azerbaijan, which is rich in oil and natural gas, Armenia is a member of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and hosts more than 10,000 Russian troops , including a Russian peacekeeping force in the remaining Armenian-controlled areas of Nagorno-Karabakh. The country depends on Russia for its security, but cannot count on its unreserved support because Moscow is also keen to maintain good relations with Azerbaijan. By contrast, Turkey is fully committed to Baku’s interests and its weapons, especially drones, played a decisive role in the defeat of Armenia three years ago.
Despite ongoing peace talks between Baku and Yerevan, tensions between the neighboring countries have escalated in recent months over the Lachin Corridor, the only land route linking Armenia with the remaining areas of Nagorno Karabakh under control armenian Since last March it has been blockaded mainly by the Azeris, reducing food and other essential supplies to a trickle and effectively trapping 120,000 Armenians who still live there.
This is the context of the statement in June by Sam Brownback, former ambassador at large for international religious freedom, that the ongoing war between Azerbaijan and Armenia threatens the existence of Christian communities in the Middle East. Brownback’s statement came after he returned from a research trip to Armenia with the Christian human rights group Philos Project. According to the Catholic News Agency report, Brownback, a Catholic, called Islamic Azerbaijan’s invasion of Armenia and its ongoing blockade of the Nagorno-Karabakh region the latest attempt to ” religious cleansing” of the Christian nation: “Azerbaijan, with the support of Turkey, is very slowly strangling Nagorno-Karabakh. They are working to make it uninhabitable so that the Armenian-Christian population of the region is forced to leave, this is the that is happening on the ground.” The former ambassador added that if the United States does not intervene, “we will again see another ancient Christian population forced out of their homeland.”
Brownback called on Congress to pass a “Nagorno-Karabakh Human Rights Act” to “establish basic security guarantees” for the enclave’s population. He also called on the United States to reinstate sanctions on Azerbaijan should it continue the blockade. Christians in the Middle East have been the target of similar attacks before, Brownback said, but this time the religious cleansing is being “carried out with US-supplied weaponry and the support of NATO member Turkey.”
Brownback’s diagnosis is entirely correct, but his advice is highly unlikely to be followed. The Biden administration has gone to great lengths to lure Turkey’s shrewd President Erdoğan into the Western camp. He remains adamant that Turkey will not join Western sanctions against Russia, but his long-delayed final agreement on Sweden’s NATO membership is a major boost to current US strategy. That this strategy does not make sense in the long term is another matter. For now, Turkey is once again a dear ally. Neither the White House nor an equally balanced Congress will compromise the current state of goodwill for the sake of a small Christian community in a God-forsaken land that has no strategic significance or valuable resources.
This is not the first time that the religious cleansing of Christians in the Middle East has been perpetrated with US-supplied weapons. The decline of the Christian remnant in the Middle East has been accelerated in recent decades by the US intervention in Iraq and by the support that the Obama Administration has given to the “moderate rebels” – in reality hard-line jihadists — in Syria. The once thriving Christian communities in pre-2003 Iraq are now tiny minorities. They survive in Syria only because the government in Damascus has prevailed, with Russian help, against the “moderate rebels”.
Lest we forget, in July 2012 the State Department lobbied hard against proposed bipartisan legislation in Congress to send “protection envoys” to the Middle East to examine the position of Christian minorities. The State Department called the protection envoy role “unnecessary, duplicative and likely counterproductive.” At the time, tens of thousands of Syria’s Christians had fled rebel-held areas as the Islamists who dominated the rebel ranks targeted them for murder, extortion and kidnapping. The legislation went nowhere.
It is virtually certain that any comparable attempt today would be met with even more vigorous pushback from the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon. It is unrealistic to expect that American politicians would risk ruining the renewed Turkish connection for the sake of a small Christian community in what is formally Azeri territory.
According to Thucydides, the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must. It applied to the Melians in the 5th century BC and today it applies to the Armenians of Nagorno Karabakh.