By Nathaniel Warne

To those who were showing up to our usual Bible study on the Book of James this past Tuesday evening, I’m sure not much felt out of place. At least that’s what I hoped to project as they filed in the church office and signed on to our Zoom link. But underneath my reading and then discussing the Book of James, my heart and soul were in turmoil and an overwhelming sense of powerlessness. Just a few hours before our Bible study was to begin, I became aware of new levels of aggression of Azerbaijan against the Armenian people living in the area of Artsakh.

In September 2020, while all of us in America were coping with the pandemic, the murder of George Floyd, layoffs and anxiety concerning poverty and evictions, I and my fellow Armenians watched with horror as Azerbaijan, with the support of Turkey, began an offensive against Armenians that lasted 44 days. The war was particularly intense in the region of Artsakh (Nagorno Karabakh).

We heard and read stories of drones killing people and destroying hospitals (amid rising numbers of COVID). And though there were attempted ceasefires brokered by United States, Russia, and France, and though the United Nations strongly condemned the conflict and use of drones, the destruction continued. In November 2020, after Azerbaijan captured the city of Shusha, a ceasefire ended hostilities but not tensions between the Azeri authorities and Armenians living in the city. While all this took place, there was near silence from the media, and silence from the church.

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In December 2022 Azeri government launched an illegal blockage of the Lachin corridor (the only way in or out of Artsakh) that prevented 120,000 native Armenians from receiving goods, medicine, and other essentials. For months on end we read reports of people fainting in bread lines from starvation, women miscarrying due to malnutrition, and fuel shortages making it impossible for people to heat their homes during the winter. Multiple attempts to provide aid were blocked by Azeri soldiers. The blockade was condemned by governments all over the world, including the United States. Through the Armenian National Committee of America, we wrote letters to Congress about America’s continued supplying of Azerbaijan weapons and money only to receive bland and bloodless auto-reply emails. I wrote to people in the church with no response at all. So, again, there was silence from the media, and silence from the church.

So, on Tuesday night, before Bible study began, when I read that Azerbaijan sent troops backed by artillery strikes into Artsakh to bring breakaway Armenians to their knees by force, thus raising the threat of another war with starving native people, I was livid. Since Tuesday, Azerbaijani forces have violated the ceasefire agreement and opened fire on areas near the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh. Officials convened on Thursday morning to talk about dissolving the Artsakh Defense Army and “reintegrating” Artsakh into Azerbaijan as the battle toll reported 200 dead and over 400 injured. These talks are being brokered by Russian peacekeepers. In the last few days, this “reintegration” has led to the displacement of nearly 7,000 civilians, with thousands being relocated to the non-functioning airport in Stepanakert. Many more people are missing. This has all happened since Tuesday, and yet again, there has been silence from the media, and silence from the church.

Armenian people are displaced, cast out of their homes, and dying. It is a hard thing to watch from afar. Many Armenians have returned to the all-too-familiar word genocide 100 years after the Ottoman Empire’s notorious 30-year genocide of Armenians during World War I. At this stage, that word is too strong, but what is happening right now is ethnic cleansing. Ethnic cleansing and genocide are closely related, but ethnic cleansing focuses on geography and on forced removal of ethnic or related groups from land. But let’s be clear, the overlap between ethnic cleansing and genocide occurs when forced removal of a people leads to their destruction. Further, United States Senator Gary Peters, who has recently visited the area, noted on a BBC interview that international observers are not being allowed into enter the area. So, we have very little idea what is actually happening as all internet has been shut off.

It’s a hard thing to be a people with displacement and genocide as part of their story. Edward Said once wrote, “It’s intolerable when one is displaced, which is not only being away from where one ought to be but is also not being able to stand at the center of your own destiny.” Displaced Armenians, in particular those who eventually made it to the Americas by the early 20th century, had to redefine our identities within this new context, and within this new place. We were forced through social pressure to stop speaking our language, to mitigate our cultural distinctiveness and beauty, and to assimilate.

Displacement, suffering, violence, and gross injustice enabled conceptions of whiteness and otherness. Displacement, ethnic cleaning, destroys identity, culture, and memory. And those who are displaced are forced into mangled and alien spaces. Willie James Jennings notes that ordering existence and identity around whiteness is an “architecture that signals displacement,” adding:

One cannot understand what is at stake in the formation of whiteness until one understands this new order of things unleashed by colonialism. The refashioning of bodies in space to form racial existence makes little sense without seeing simultaneously the refashioning of space.

Canon Stephanie Spellers, in The Church Cracked Open, notes that conquerors used the displacement of people to erase cultural sources of identity that made them dependent on colonial rule.

How can a church that prides itself on seeking justice, on walking the way of love, and dismantling white supremacy be so quiet about the displacement of a Christian people with roots that go back to the early fourth century? If it is the case, as Jennings and others have suggested, that displacement and ethnic cleansing are at the heart of creating whiteness, how can a church that is so concerned with the dismantling white supremacy be so laissez-faire about what is taking place in Artsakh?  There has not been any public plan for what ‘reintegration’ might look like. Reintegration could be the very process of erasing cultural distinctiveness that has taken place in the past. Azeri government has shown little regard for the Christian churches, monasteries, and burial sites in the area. For me, this silence makes all other claims of recognizing our Baptismal Covenant to “respect the dignity of every human person” grotesque virtue signaling. The events of the last few days could absolutely result in the genocide of 120,000 Armenians, and the church (which so openly welcomed displaced Armenians in the United States after the 30-year genocide) will have said nothing! This is apathy, it is ignorance, and it is unacceptable. The church can’t be silent anymore.

The Rev. Dr. Nathaniel A. Warne (Ph.D., Durham University) is priest in charge of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Mishawaka, Indiana. He was a postdoctoral research fellow at the university of Notre Dame, and has taught at Durham University, the University of Notre Dame, and Bexley Seabury Seminary Federation. He is the author of Josef Pieper on the Spiritual Life(University of Notre Dame Press, 2023), The Call to Happiness: Eudaimonism in English Puritan Thought(Lexington/Fortress Press, 2020), and Emotions and Religious Dynamics(Ashgate, 2013, co-edited with Douglas J. Davies).

3 Responses

  1. Dr John Wallace

    Tragic indeed. I went on a pilgrimage to Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh in 2009 and the memories are as vivid today as they were then. Why is Armenian suffering always off the radar from 1918 onwards?

    Reply

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