A day after Azerbaijan launched a military offensive against ethnic Armenians in the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, they halted their offensive on Wednesday following a ceasefire brokered by the Russians in what has become one of the world’s longest-running conflicts.
Under the agreement, Nagorno-Karabakh’s separatist authorities made many concessions, including disbanding the region’s defense forces and the immediate withdrawal of Armenia’s military. However, the question of Nagorno-Karabakh’s final status remains open and the center of talks between the sides.
Russian President Vladimir Putin had a telephone call with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan to discuss the latest developments, according to the Kremlin.
The conflict, which has been ongoing for three decades, has resulted in the killing of tens of thousands of soldiers and displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians, a majority of them Christians.
Here’s an explainer regarding the conflict, its history and why Christians in the region remain at risk:
What’s at Stake?
The area known as Nagorno-Karabakh — with a population of about 120,000 — is a mountainous region made up mostly of Armenians inside the borders of Azerbaijan. It has been a point of conflict since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The region came under the control of Armenian forces backed by that country’s military at the end of a separatist war in 1994. Muslim-majority Azerbaijan, however, regained control of the territories — including a part of Nagorno-Karabakh — following six weeks of fighting in 2020. The area is recognized internationally as belonging to Azerbaijan.
The 2020 conflict ended with an agreement to deploy about 2,000 Russian peacekeepers to the area — but tensions have risen considerably over the past nine months when Azerbaijan began blocking the Lachin Corridor, a major roadway that connects Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia.
After claiming that four soldiers and two civilians were killed by Armenian mines, Azerbaijan on Tuesday launched heavy artillery fire in what it called an “anti-terrorist operation.” The following day, authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh announced that a cease-fire had been reached — but the region’s fate remains very much in the air.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told CNN on Wednesday that there’s “concern about the sharp escalation of tensions and the outbreak of hostilities.”
The announcement of a ceasefire unleashed a wave of protests in Armenia, where citizens smashed windows of government buildings on Yerevan’s Republic Square as they fought with police officials in an attempt to get inside.
Roots of the conflict
It was 100 years ago that the Soviet Union established the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast, home to a largely ethnic Armenian population within the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic in the landlocked area of the South Caucasus.
In 1988, Nagorno-Karabakh’s regional legislature passed a resolution declaring its intention to join the Republic of Armenia, despite its official location within Azerbaijan’s borders.
Armed fighting between the two republics, which have a long history of tensions, was kept under control during Soviet rule. But as the Soviet Union began to collapse, so did peace in the region.
Following the USSR’s collapse in 1991, just as Armenia and Azerbaijan achieved statehood, Nagorno-Karabakh officially declared independence. War erupted between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed area, resulting in roughly 30,000 casualties and creating hundreds of thousands of refugees.
By 1993, Armenia had gained control of Nagorno-Karabakh. In 1994, Russia brokered a ceasefire — known as the Bishkek Protocol — that left Nagorno-Karabakh de facto independent but with ties with Armenia.
“Without successful mediation efforts, ceasefire violations and renewed tensions threaten to reignite a full-scale conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan,” The Council for Foreign Relations said.
“Such a conflict would destabilize the South Caucasus region,” CFR said, “potentially disrupting oil and gas exports from Azerbaijan — which produces about 80,000 barrels of oil per day — to Central Asia and Europe. Russia is committed by treaty to defend Armenia in the instance of military escalation, while Turkey has pledged to support Azerbaijan.”
Armenian Christians in crisis
The war goes beyond being a territorial dispute. The area has strong cultural ties to Christian Armenians. It is a place that features monasteries and other religious sites, some dating back to the Middle Ages. Experts and observers have said that Armenians in Azerbaijan have been victims of pogroms.
Indeed, the conflict between the two nations isn’t limited to Nagorno-Karabakh. Between 1997 and 2006, the Azerbaijani government undertook a devastating campaign against Armenian heritage sites in Nakhichevan, an Azerbaijani enclave separated from the main part of the country by Armenian land.
As a result of the conflgration, 89 churches and the thousands of carved memorial stones of the Djulfa cemetery, the largest medieval Armenian cemetery in the world, were destroyed.
Armenia, which adopted Christianity as its state religion in the early 300s, is the world’s first Christian nation. Tradition holds that St. Thaddeus preached there in the first century.
So many centuries later and Christians throughout this part of the world, and including Nagorno-Karabakh (where 90% of the population is Christian), remain in a state of crisis.
“The destruction of Christian communities like Nagaro Karabakh is a tragedy with profound consequences,” she wrote. “These communities, which have preserved their faith and heritage for centuries, are now facing extinction in many parts of Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. The events of September 11, 2001, and their aftermath have played a pivotal role in exacerbating these challenges, from increasing religious tensions to regional instability and mass migration.”
This past June, former U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom Sam Brownback warned that ongoing conflict threatened the existence of Christian communities. Brownback’s statements, following a fact-finding trip to Armenia with the Christian group Philos Project, called Azerbaijan, an Islamic nation, a “religious cleansing” of Christians.
“Azerbaijan, with Turkey’s backing, is really slowly strangling Nagorno-Karabakh,” he said. “They’re working to make it unlivable so that the region’s Armenian-Christian population is forced to leave, that’s what’s happening on the ground.”
Philos Project President Robert Nicholson called the situation “extremely urgent and existential.”
“This is the oldest Christian nation facing again for the second time in only about a century the possibility of a genocide,” he said, referring to the death of 1.5 million Armenians starting in 1915 during the Ottoman Empire that the U.S. recognizes as a genocide.
Clemente Lisi is the executive editor at Religion Unplugged. He is the author of “The FIFA World Cup: A History of the Planet’s Biggest Sporting Event” and previously served as deputy head of news at the New York Daily News and a longtime reporter at The New York Post. Follow him on Twitter @ClementeLisi.
Produced in association with Religion Unplugged