Time For The Press To Rethink Persecution?


The September takeover of the population’s ancient homeland is a straight-up case of “ethnic cleansing,” according to the European Parliament and a Council on Foreign Relations analysis. “In one fell swoop, one of the world’s most brutal dictatorships destroyed one of the world’s oldest Christian communities,” writes Joel Veldkamp, the head of international communications with Christian Solidarity International.

The vanishing ethnic enclave dated back to 1,722 years ago, when Armenia became the first state to collectively adopt the Christian religion. As geography evolved, the Nagorno Armenians found themselves caught in a sector within Azerbaijan.

The latest “World Christian Encyclopedia” edition reports that Azerbaijan is 96% Muslim, while most of the Nagorno population and 84% of the population in neighboring Armenia belong to the Armenian Apostolic (Orthodox) Church. Tensions were contained when the entire area was controlled under the Soviet Union, but that regime’s collapse led to the ongoing religio-ethnic struggle between newly independent Armenia and Azerbaijan.

The Nagorno collapse is historically important in its own right, but importantly, it raises how religious liberty should be understood and championed. The problem is posed in an Oct. 3 article in First Things by Veldkamp (who is reachable at Solidarity’s Switzerland headquarters [email protected] or 41-0-44-982-33-33).

Veldkamp believes that the “almost complete silence” among Christians about the Nagorno takeover is “shameful” but also “strange” in light of the rise since the 1990s of “a robust and vocal movement on behalf of persecuted Christians abroad,” especially among conservative western churches.

He proposes that this movement is misguided in one fundamental way. “Religious freedom” is framed in terms of individual human rights. That’s important, to be sure, but too many Christians dismiss Nagorno-type crises when they do not involve official actions against things like holding worship services, building of churches, Christian education of youngsters or Bible distribution, as in Communist or Muslim countries.

Instead, as with the “Armenian Genocide” in Turkey a century ago, governments seek to “exterminate a Christian people (whether practicing or not)” under a hostile regime that may see a threat to its hegemony. In other words, persecution can be aimed at populations as well as individuals, which is not how Christians in the American political system think about such matters.

Veldkamp adds that this conception allows “the U.S. foreign policy establishment” to define persecution as “primarily a problem of individual liberty rather than a question involving ethnic identity, peoples or even nations.” This can mean broader American foreign policy avoids questioning.

According to this Solidarity specialist, potential crises currently loom for a Christian population facing threats of foreign “oppression, military attack and ethnic cleansing” in Armenia’s southern Syunik province, and similarly for sectors within India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Nigeria and Sudan.

In addition to the aforementioned genocide, Armenia across history has all too rarely enjoyed national independence. It has been dominated over the centuries by Arabs, Persians, Byzantine Greeks, Ottoman Turks, Russians and, finally, the Soviets.

An ecclesiastical point for writers to keep in mind: The Armenian Apostolic Church is part of so-called Oriental Orthodoxy, also prominent in Egypt, Ethiopia and Syria, as opposed to the Eastern Orthodoxy of Russia, Ukraine, Greece and others.

As such, Armenians believe in the divine and human natures in Jesus Christ as defined by Christianity’s first three ecumenical councils, but not the further doctrine proclaimed by the Council of Chalcedon in A.D. 451. See this detailed explanation.


* Armenian Orthodox, Protestant and Catholic church leaders in the U.S. issued this appeal last week.

* Congressional Research Service’s 2021 backgrounder on the Nagorno-Karabakh situation (click here).

* Council on Foreign Relations analysis can be found here.

* This Google search contains several essential terms, leading to additional resources and news reports.

This piece first appeared at GetReligion.org.

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