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Ancient Christian enclave faces ‘genocide by starvation,’ says Armenian Catholic bishop

Bishop Mikael A. Mouradian of the California-based Armenian Catholic Eparchy, who is the head of Armenian Catholics in the U.S. and Canada, is pictured in a 2012 file photo. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

(OSV News) — An Armenian Catholic bishop is calling for prayer and action as some 120,000 ethnic Armenians face what he and other experts call “genocide by starvation.”

“It is a violation of every kind of law,” Bishop Mikael A. Mouradian of the California-based Armenian Catholic Eparchy of Our Lady of Nareg told OSV News. The eparchy is part of the Armenian Catholic Church, one of the 24 self-governing churches in communion with Pope Francis, head of the Latin Church, that together constitute the worldwide Catholic Church.

For the past nine months, Azerbaijani forces have blocked the only road leading from Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh (known in Armenian by its ancient name, Artsakh), an historic Armenian enclave located in southwestern Azerbaijan and internationally recognized as part of that nation.

The blockade of the three-mile (five-kilometer) Lachin Corridor, which connects the roughly 1,970 square mile enclave to Armenia, has deprived residents of food, baby formula, oil, medication, hygienic products and fuel — even as a convoy of trucks with an estimated 400 tons of aid is stalled at the single Azerbaijani checkpoint.

According to BBC News, local journalist Irina Hayrapetyan has reported that some residents have fainted from hunger while waiting in line for subsistence rations.

In February, the International Court of Justice ordered Azerbaijan to ensure “unimpeded movement of persons, vehicles and cargo along the Lachin Corridor in both directions.”

However, the International Committee of the Red Cross said in July that “despite persistent efforts” the Red Cross was “not currently able to bring humanitarian assistance to the civilian population through the Lachin corridor or through any other routes.”

That same month, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev to ensure transit through the corridor and to pursue peace negotiations.

The U.S. is “deeply concerned about the humanitarian situation in Nagorno-Karabakh,” Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said during an Aug. 16 U.N. Security Council briefing on Armenia and Azerbaijan. “Access to food, medicine, baby formula, and energy should never be held hostage.”

Her remarks echoed those made earlier in August by four special rapporteurs for the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Luis Moreno Ocampo, founding chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, said the blockade amounts to a direct violation of the 1948 Genocide Convention, which prohibits “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction.”

“It is time for the United States and other world powers to act,” he said in an online Aug. 11 statement.

With the area surrounded by Muslim-majority Azerbaijan, the blockade amounts to an “ethnic cleansing of Christians,” since “the sole Christian people in the Caucasus are now the Armenians,” who are “not new in the region,” said Bishop Mouradian.

“Armenians have been living on that land for more than 3,000 years,” he said, “There are a lot of churches there from the fourth, eighth, 10th centuries. It’s not a new thing for Armenians.”

Armenia was the first nation to officially adopt Christianity in 301, having been evangelized by the Apostles Thaddeus and Bartholomew between A.D. 40 and 60.

Both Christian Armenians and Turkic Azeris lived for centuries in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, which became part of the Russian Empire during the 19th century. After World War I, the region became an autonomous part of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan.

Nagorno-Karabakh declared itself independent in 1991 after the fall of the Soviet Union, and quickly became the focus of a 1992-1994 struggle between Armenia and Azerbaijan for control of the region, with some 30,000 killed and more than 1 million displaced. Russia brokered a 1994 ceasefire, and in a 2017 referendum, voters approved a new constitution and a change in name to the Republic of Artsakh (although “Nagorno Karabakh Republic” also remains an official name).

A second war broke out in 2020 when Azerbaijan launched an offensive to reclaim territory, with 3,000 Azerbaijani soldiers and 4,000 Armenian soldiers killed. Russian peacekeepers were stationed to monitor a renewed ceasefire and to guard the Lachin Corridor, but fighting erupted again in 2022.

Bishop Mouradain said the current blockade revives the specter of the 1915-1916 Armenian genocide, when up to 1.2 million Armenians were slaughtered and starved under the Ottoman Empire. The atrocities were the basis for lawyer Raphael Lemkin’s development of the term “genocide.”

Bishop Mouradain’s own grandparents fled the Ottoman attacks, resettling in Lebanon, where the bishop as a child witnessed that nation’s civil war.

“I know very well war is a bad thing,” he told OSV News. “War and armaments are not the solution. Dialogue is the resolution.”

However, he warned against “dialogue that becomes a monologue where the powerful control everything,” and stressed the need for “dialogue where respect for each other is very clear, especially where the right to live freely on ancestral lands is accepted by both sides.”

Bishop Mouradain also urged the U.S. government to uphold section 907 of the 1992 Freedom Support Act, which broadly prohibits aid to Azerbaijan’s government with some exceptions. The restriction can be annually waived by the President, who did so most recently in January, claiming the move was necessary for counterterrorism and security efforts.

But the waiver is enabling Azerbaijan to violate human rights, said Bishop Mouradain.

“Azerbaijan is using U.S. military aid to attack Armenian cities in Artsakh,” he said, noting that human rights abuses, in addition to those incurred by the blockade, have been reported.

Last year, the European Parliament acknowledged and condemned a “systematic, state-level policy of ‘Armenophobia,’ historical revisionism and hatred toward Armenians promoted by Azerbaijani authorities.”

Azerbaijani border guards in the region have been accused of kidnappings and illegal detentions.

“Armenia is the sole democratic country in the region,” said Bishop Mouradain, adding that “the values that made human history (worthwhile) are being lost nowadays.”

“It is a God-given freedom … to live on the land of our ancestors and to make our own laws according to the beliefs that we have, be it (as) Armenians, Turks, Ukrainians, Russians,” he said. “As human beings, we have the right to live freely on this earth.”

Gina Christian is a national reporter for OSV News. Follow her on X (formerly Twitter) at @GinaJesseReina.

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