Nuri Kino: Christians in Armenia battle for their history (In english)

Independent investigative reporter, activist and minority rights expert Nuri Kino reports from the country with an extremely long Christian history.

Suddenly, from one day to the next, bombs started to fall on Nagorna-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan. Pictures of tens of thousands of fleeing Armenians were flashed all over the world.
Just a few days into the war, which lasted 44 days, new images came, now of destroyed churches and of jihadists from Syria who said in videos that they wanted to kill infidels. Many activists in the Western world, Armenians and other Christians interpreted the new conflict as a war of religion.

ARMENIA. It was the fall of 2020, and many of us felt we were re-living the attacks on Christians, Yazidis and moderate Muslims in Iraq and Syria during the summer and fall of 2014 by the terrorist group Isis. Just like then, videos of panicked fleeing Armenian families with children left many of us sleepless. We could not sit still and watch. My organization A Demand for Action (ADFA), raised funds used for food for tens of thousands of people. We also collected and sent 40 tons of winter clothing that the local charity Transparent Armenia Charitable Foundation helped distribute.

But was it really a religious war?

Armenia was the first country in the world to adopt Christianity as its state religion in the year 301 AD, while Azerbaijan is a Muslim country. Political scientists and other researchers believe that religion was a secondary cause of the war. That it is about natural resources and geopolitical location. However, a large part of the population on both sides see it as a religious war.

At the end of December 2021, I was finally able to go to Armenia to better understand the conflict with its neighbouring countries of Turkey and Azerbaijan.

Where Christianity first established

Two people I spent time with were journalist Raffi Elliott and activist Haik Kazarian. They claim that Christianity in Armenia gained momentum as early as 50 AD. The apostle Judas Thaddeus is the one who first exposed Armenians to Christianity. It is extra exciting for me, a Syriac Orthodox Christian, as it is claimed that Judas Thaddeus was from northern Mesopotamia, maybe from the Turabdin region, where I have roots. This is among the places where historians believe that Christianity had its origins, and from where it spread.

Judas Thaddeus is said to have been clubbed to death or beheaded. The manner of his martyrdom is disputed but he was buried in 66 AD. The church that marks his tomb is called the Black Church and is located in today’s northwestern Iran, on the border with Armenia.

“Armenia is so much more than Christianity and religion, we are a people who have fought for our existence for thousands of years. For example, we have our very own alphabet, language and culture”, says Kazarian emphatically.

Nuri Kino utanför Templet i Garni

A Temple from 700 BC

My two companions suggest that we go to Garni, a temple in Armenia from 700 BC, which a few months ago ended up on a Belgian magazine’s list of the 51 most beautiful historic buildings in the world from Roman times. Garni was a temple where the Armenian sun god Mihr was worshipped.

When we get there, a few days after New Year, the Swedish pop group ABBA’s “Happy New Year” is playing loudly from the sound system. I am filled with pride in our Swedish pop wonder, and can’t help laughing at the meeting of cultures. Sweden meets Armenia. Pop culture meets history.

Outside the temple, there are stalls selling sweets and souvenirs. We buy Gata, an Armenian speciality, a kind of soft cake that has a faint and smooth taste of vanilla. It is considered sacred and served fresh during Candlemas. Elliott insists we eat one. I also buy pomegranate juice rolls. It is a delicacy eaten at Christmas and Easter in most Christian communities in the Middle East and the Caucasus. Pistachios rolled in dried pomegranate or various fruit juices; a sour and full-bodied taste.

We get in the car to drive to our next destination. Between bites of the sweets, Elliott asks me to look out the window. Along the road, in towns and villages, there are graves, new and old. They are dedicated to those who fell as martyrs during the various wars. They are adorned with a mixture of plastic roses that look real and fresh flowers that are replaced daily.

We stop at one of the graveyards and read the inscriptions on the tombstone. I notice a difference between these graves and others. On some of them, the epitaph is a short story of the heroic deeds of the one buried there. It becomes obvious how proud Armenians are of soldiers and volunteers who are all called “war heroes”.

En av alla gravar till de martyrer som fallit under det senaste kriget. De är prydda av en blandning av rosor i plast som ser äkta ut och färska blommor som byts ut dagligen.

The 44-day war

In the fall of 2020, up to 100,000 ethnic Armenians were forced to flee Nagorno-Karabakh, or Artsakh, as they call it. During the 44-day war, 6,000 soldiers, both Azeris and Armenians were killed. After six weeks of deadly clashes, Armenia and Azerbaijan signed a ceasefire agreement brokered by Russia. On January 12 this year, the peace agreement was temporarily broken, and three Armenian and two Azeri soldiers were killed in the fighting.

It is overcast, cold and raw outside, as we go on to the Geghard monastery. The name means “spear” in Armenian. It is supposed to be one of the world’s oldest monasteries and according to myth, the spearhead that Longinus, the Roman soldier who pierced Jesus in the side with his lance, was taken there. The soldier, after perceiving miracles while stabbing Jesus, became one of Christ’s first followers. There are other places on earth where it is claimed that the spearhead exists. Either way, it’s a magnificent environment. Part of the monastery is carved out of the mountainside rock. About a hundred visitors brave the cold.

Five young Armenians from the USA throw pebbles towards a carved mountainside. “If a pebble gets stuck in one of the carved pits, you can wish for something,” says Kazarian, throwing up some stones expectantly. He does not succeed. Elliott and I also try and fail. A young woman in her twenties gets it right on the first try. The rest of us join in her cheers.

Although it is a fairly large crowd that wander around all parts of the monastery, they are quiet and respectful. Visitors light candles and pray for the sick and others in need of prayer. They sing hymns and they drink holy water that flows down from a spring in the mountain. Some of them also fill bottles to take home.

“Many people are convinced that this spring water can cure the sick. Taste it, it has a special freshness“, Elliott whispers to me. I drink it. He’s right.

Raffi Elliott

One of the least guarded areas

When we leave the monastery, we see more stalls. Here, they also sell crucifixes and icons. While we browse, Elliott, who has written at least a dozen articles about the 2020 war and who has contributed to articles in media outlets such as Reuters, says that it is important to have all the facts when writing about the situation in the Caucasus. He believes that this area of the former Soviet Union is one of the least reported on, and for which reporters often lack the knowledge to report adequately.

Kazarian drives into a small village. Khash, an Armenian speciality, is served here. He and Elliott want me to taste it while they explain the war to me. It is cold inside the small cottage where the food is cooked and served. Hot mint tea along with flat Armenian bread and several different kinds of cheese and fresh herbs are served before the main course and warms us up a bit.

“It was on September 27 that the Azerbaijani army attacked Nagorno-Karabakh, which we Armenians call Artsakh. It is an enclave within the borders of Azerbaijan with an almost entirely Armenian population. It has its own government and its own parliament. The area with its 150,000 inhabitants may at first glance seem small and insignificant “, Elliott explains, as he puts herbs and cheese in a flatbread, which he hands over to me.

Kazarian elaborates on his point.

“However, it is of great importance, both for Azerbaijan, for Artsakh’s own population and for the state of Armenia,” he says. For us Armenians, no matter where in the world we live, we remember our roots which have been tied for centuries to these lands. There are more than double the number of Armenians living abroad as in Armenia and many are attached to Artsakh in one way or another”.

The hot food arrives, meat, bone and fat in heavy broth. You can then season it yourself, with garlic, salt and spices. It’s a little too heavy for me, so I stick to the delicious homemade cheeses, bread and herbs.

The world’s largest genocide memorial

When we finish eating, we drive towards the capital Yerevan. Elliott leaves for an interview. Kazarian drives me to the home of Hayk Azadian Izgi, an acquaintance of mine, a relative of my relatives, from Sweden, who is in Armenia for New Year and Christmas. Izgi wants to be with me when I visit the world’s largest genocide memorial monument. He is a good friend of many Armenian writers, journalists and researchers. I jumped out of the car. We cheek kissed, hugged and sat in the car again.

“Dear Nuri, for Azerbaijan and its big brother Turkey, it is about the geopolitical situation, the proximity to natural resources such as gas. For Armenians in general, the area has historical and religious significance. Most of Artsakh and its surroundings have always been inhabited by Armenians. Towns and villages are full of historical and religious heritage. A large number of these were destroyed during the 44-day war in the fall of 2020 and continue to be destroyed as we speak”, he says, then interrupts himself as we reach Tsitsernakaberd, the genocide monument.

Both Kazarian and Izgi are visibly moved by the moment, although they have visited the place countless times. Hundreds of trees are planted and strategically placed in front of the entrance. It is the governments of many countries but also individuals who paid to have a tree in their name in memory of the victims of the Seyfo genocide, also known as the Armenian genocide.

Nuri Kino vid Tsitsernakaberd, som är ett minnesmärke över det armeniska folkmordet 1915, beläget i västra delen av Jerevan i Armenien.

Brutality that is difficult to comprehend

Many world leaders and celebrities have been here. It is a place in Armenia that all visitors feel they must-see. Over 1.5 million Christians; Armenians, Assyrians / Syriacs and Greeks were massacred during the 1915 genocide in the Ottoman Empire. I’ve spent thousands of hours researching it. In the years 1999–2000, I interviewed about fifty of the survivors. The brutality they witnessed is impossible for most of us to comprehend.

The next day, I focus on the religious aspects of the 2020 war. Armenian social and traditional media take the fact that jihadists from Syria joined the Azeri army, something the Washington Post reported, as proof that it was a religious war. For the Syrian jihadists, it was a war against infidels. A large number of churches and monasteries were also destroyed during and after the war, which is also considered as proof that it was a religious war.

“...not a religious [conflict]”

I get in touch with the doctoral student and historian Simon Maghakyan. He is a visiting scholar, a lecturer in international relations at two USA-based universities, and a PhD student in heritage crime at Cranfield University in the United Kingdom. Maghakyan writes to me that it was not a religious war.

“The Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict is not a religious one but Azerbaijan targets all indigenous Christian sites in disputed regions because of their intertwined association with Armenian culture. For example, in 1997-2006 Azerbaijan eradicated every medieval Christian cultural property in Nakhichevan, but preserved Armenian castles and bridges because their secular nature allowed for such structures to be much more easily appropriated. In some ways, this is an extension of the genocide of 1915, an intent to make Armenians extinct. In this process, one of the world’s oldest Christian civilizations is being erased, even though religion is not Azerbaijan’s motivation.”

I write to a Facebook friend’s acquaintance. She lived near the Green Church in the city of Shushi, lost to Armenians in the 2020 war. She was abroad at work when the war broke out. She would like to talk to me and says I can quote her, but anonymously.

“I lived just a stone’s throw away from the Green Church, it has great historical and religious value to us. Now it’s a cafe. It hurts, hurts very much. The holy place where we were baptized, married, and which we visited at least once a week is gone. Not only that, everything in my apartment was stolen or destroyed. Photographs of my grandparents, everything I owned that had any sentimental value are gone. With it also my city, my neighbourhood, everything I loved, my neighbours, everything. What they hate is the combination of our ethnicity and religion. This can best be described as Armenophobia.”

Gröna kyrkan, Shushi

English translation edited by Canadian journalist Susan Korah.

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