Nagorno-Karabakh is a region within the internationally recognised borders of Azerbaijan. Its population is mainly Armenian. Since 1988, the status of the region has been in dispute and since 1994 the governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan have been in peace talks to resolve the issue. Last weekend, on 1 April 2016, fighting started on the borders of the region between Armenians and Azeris. Within a few days more than 300 people have been reported dead on both sides and many more wounded. The casualties include soldiers on both sides and some civilians, including children. A ceasefire has been agreed on since Wednesday, however, there have been several reports of drones over the Armenian region. Earlier in the week, there were also reports of ISIS militants returning to Azerbaijan to join the fight against the Christian Armenians.
This week, as we pray for Armenians, we remember all those who live in the shadow of the escalating conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh.
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God of mercy and comfort,
For the long history of of pain and travail, of oppression and genocide inflicted on the Armenian people spread around the world, we pray for your mercy.
For those injured in the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, we pray for your healing. For the families of those who died, we pray for your consolation.
God of love and peace,
Open our ears to hear the cry of victims of war and children who suffer because people put their faith in weapons and war. Instil in all human beings the vision of peace, the strength of justice and the joy of fellowship. Grant insight and strength so that we may always respond to hatred with love, to injustice with total dedication to justice, to need with the sharing of self, to war with peace.
With our Armenian sisters and brothers who live among us as part of our community and church we pray for your everlasting peace.
The Legend of the origins of Armenians goes back to Noah. The Legend has it that Hayk, the ancestor of the Armenians is the son of Torgom son of Tiras son of Gomer son of Japheth son of Noah. Hayk had an argument with Belus (Bel) and migrated with his group from Babylon to the North and settled in what became Armenia. The Land they settled in included current day Armenia, Nagorno Karabakh, Nakhichevan, parts of north-western Syria, part of south-western Georgia and the eastern half of Turkey.
In 301 C.E., Armenia became the first Christian nation. In 405 C.E., Mesrop Mashdots, a monk, created the Armenian alphabet and consequently the Armenian language that the church used for centuries, and still uses. The Bible was translated into this new language. The Language itself was a Christian creation stressing equality and inclusiveness. In 451, while the rest of the Christian world was at the Council of Chalcedon, the Persians demanded that Armenia become Zoroastrian, but the king refused and sent his generals to fight the invading Persians. All the soldiers were killed and the king captured, but within a few years the different freedom fighters were able to drive the Persians out and the Armenian Church was able to continue.
Between the 8th and 11th centuries the Seljuk Turks invaded the region, and in the late 13th and early 14th century they created the Ottoman Empire in Anatolia, which was an Armenian region, but because of the Roman, Persian and Arab conquests, had been under the rule of different empires. It had a diversity of cultures with a majority of Armenians. The Ottoman Empire grew and invaded Europe, the Middle East and Northern Africa.
Between 1894 and 1896, the Sultan ordered the killing of 200,000-300,000 Armenians, which was known as the Hamidian massacres.
Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, similar to other ethnicities, were considered second grade citizens. They were forced to wear different colours identifying their ethnicity. They were persecuted and marginalised. They were not allowed to occupy certain positions, and were not allowed certain jobs. They were not allowed education and many had gone to Russia or Georgia for their education. In 1908 the Young Turks took over the government, and introduced reforms. These reforms gave Armenians the opportunity for education and some of the positions they were denied in the past. Those educated abroad returned and the Armenian community prospered.
The Young Turks government considered this development a threat to the Empire’s existence and on April 24, 1915, the day before the ANZACs attempted their invasion in Gallipoli, the Turkish government rounded up and arrested some 250 intellectuals and community leaders in Constantinople. The genocide was carried out during and after World War I and implemented in two phases: the wholesale killing of the able-bodied male population through massacre and subjection of army conscripts to forced labour, followed by the deportation of women, children, the elderly and infirm on death marches leading to the Syrian desert. Driven forward by military escorts, the deportees were deprived of food and water and subjected to periodic robbery, rape, and massacre. The total number of people killed as a result has been estimated at 1.5 million. A further 1 million were displaced. The deserts of Syria are filled with the bones of dead women and children. The Syrian government has given the Armenian community a piece of land in the city of Deir Ezzor, which was the final concentration place for annihilating the Armenian deportation caravans, where a memorial to the victims of the genocide is built.
Although religion was used in many instances and the phrase “Allah u Akbar” was heard when killing Armenians, this was a purely political decision. The government abused the religious difference to entice Turks to kill their Armenian neighbours. Many of the Muslim Turks, however, decided to protect and help their Christian neighbours from the government troops who came to kill them.
The governments of Great Britain, France and Russia at the time condemned the acts and considered them as crimes against humanity and civilisation. Churchill called it an unnamed crime, because the term genocide did not yet exist. Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jewish jurist, coined the term genocide in 1943, and mentions in many of his writings that he was troubled by the Armenian mass murders as a young boy which made him work tirelessly to coin the term genocide and make sure the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide on December 9, 1948.
Since then, Armenians have been working to encourage organisations and governments to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide. The Armenian Genocide was acknowledged by the Uniting Church in Australia Assembly in 2015. Other organisations and countries who have also acknowledged the genocide include the World Council of Churches, Presbyterian Church (USA), Union for Reform Judaism, Human Rights Association (Turkey), International Association of Genocide Scholars, over 22 countries, the Australian State governments of New South Wales and South Australia).
Geoffrey Robertson, in his book An Inconvenient Genocide: Who Now Remembers the Armenians? mentions that today countries like Australia recognise the atrocities of what they have done to the indigenous people, because in 1915 the government of Great Britain was appalled and condemned the massacres of the Armenians. The events of 1915 became a moral wakeup call to the great nations. It was the first genocide of the 20th century.
Armenians today are dispersed all over the world. The major diaspora centre was in the Middle East (Lebanon and Syria) where they face yet another persecution and have become refugees again. The Bishop of the Armenian Orthodox Church in Australia and New Zealand in a conversation said “My people became refugees in 1915. 100 years later we have again become refugees.” Although Armenia today is an independent country and many Armenians in the diaspora look to it as their country, a major part of the land has become part of Turkey, and the homeland of many diaspora Armenians is today part of Turkey.
The Author William Saroyan said “I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy Armenia . See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.” And the first thing they build in this New Armenian is a Church and a School.