“Today, the safety and integrity of more than a thousand years of Armenian Christian culture are hanging by the slimmest of threads,” said Archbishop Vicken Aykazian last week, during a major gathering of political, diplomatic, and faith leaders in Washington, DC.
The International Religious Freedom Summit (July 13-15, 2021) brought together global leaders in the political and religious spheres to discuss the grim reality of increasing religious persecution around the world.
The conference addressed concerns in such locales as China, India, the Middle East, and Africa. A persistent theme expressed by the roster of speakers emphasized the persecution of Christians who live as minorities or vulnerable populations within their home countries.
Archbishop Vicken Aykazian, Diocesan Legate and Ecumenical Director of the Eastern Diocese, was among the featured speakers at the summit. Speaking as a veteran of the worldwide ecumenical movement, and as a former president of the National Council of Church of Christ in the U.S.A., Archbishop Aykazian spoke about the Ottoman persecution of Armenians and other Christian minorities that climaxed in the Armenian Genocide—and about how similar policies of physical and cultural destruction erased the Armenian presence in Nakhichevan, and currently threaten Armenians in Artsakh.
More than 1,000 political and religious leaders, representing some 100 countries, listened to the presentations live in Washington. The proceedings were also simulcast over the Internet.
The Urgent Danger of Genocide
Sam Brownback, the former Kansas Senator and U.S. Ambassador for International Religious freedom, co-chaired the summit with Katrina Lantos Swett, previously the chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
Ambassador Brownback said he hoped the summit would create a bi-partisan, multi-faith coalition to champion the “cause of religious freedom around the world.”
Remarks delivered in person or via video were offered by the Greek Orthodox Church’s Archbishop Elpidophoros; current and former U.S. Secretaries of State Anthony Blinken and Mike Pompeo; the Dalai Lama; former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power; Roman Catholic Archbishop of New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan; and a bi-partisan roster of American political figures.
In an impassioned speech, Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ) invoked the memory of Raphael Lemkin as the coiner of the term “genocide,” and referenced the Holocaust and Armenian Genocide as episodes of inhumanity that show the danger of religious persecution erupting into genocide. (Click here to watch a recording.)
According to Archbishop Aykazian, Rep. Smith was not alone in acknowledging the relevance of the Armenian Genocide, as well as the aftermath of the Artsakh war, to the theme of the summit.
“I was amazed that almost every major speaker mentioned Armenia and the Karabagh question,” Archbishop Aykazian said. “After I delivered my own remarks on those topics, a number of national delegations sought me out personally, to ask what they could do to improve the situation in our homeland.”
In his speech during a panel on “Legal Structures of Persecution and Religious Discrimination,” the Diocesan Legate drew parallels between the Ottoman policies enacted against Armenians on the eve of 1915, and polices currently used against religious minorities throughout the world today, that could also lead to genocide. He detailed the ravaging of Armenian Christian monuments and population centers in Anatolia, Nakhichevan, and now Artsakh.
Click here to view a video recording of Archbishop Aykazian at the summit. The text of his remarks appears below.
To coincide with the International Religious Freedom Summit, the organization In Defense of Christians and the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America sponsored an ecumenical prayer service in Washington’s St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral, where Archbishop Aykazian was a keynote speaker.
The solemn gathering on the evening of July 14 was held to mourn and protest Turkey’s conversion of Constantinople’s magnificent Hagia Sophia Cathedral into a mosque—an ominous development that happened one year ago, in the summer of 2020.
Click here to watch a recording of the service (Archbishop Aykazian’s speech begins at 46 minutes.)
* * *
Remarks of Archbishop Vicken Aykazian, Diocesan Legate & Ecumenical Director
At the 2021 International Religious Freedom Summit in Washington, DC
I want to express my gratitude to Ambassador Brownback for the opportunity to address this important gathering today.
I speak to you in my capacity as a longtime actor in the world ecumenical and interfaith movements, who has had the honor of serving as a past president of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and as a present board member of both the NCC and the World Council of Churches.
For Armenian Christians, our most vivid experience of persecution came in the early decades of the 20th century, in the Armenian Genocide. That was surely the greatest expression of crude, physical persecution, with the entire Armenian population of Ottoman Turkey uprooted from its homeland of centuries, marched into deportation, exile, and annihilation, in what would later be termed the first modern genocide.
More than one and a-half million Armenians perished, and hundreds of thousands were scattered across the globe. Armenians shared this fate with other Christian minorities—Greek, Syriac, and other Christians—who were systematically targeted for removal by the Ottoman authorities.
But it’s important to note that prior to the extreme persecution of genocide, Armenians and other Christians were subjected to laws and regulations in the Ottoman empire, placing special burdens on them, erecting barriers to daily activities like worship and commerce, and forcing them into a subordinate status before the law, whenever they were placed in opposition to the Islamic majority.
On the eve of 1915, there were 2,650 Armenian churches and monasteries spread out over the breadth of Anatolia. A little over a century later, nearly all of these have been destroyed—either actively or by enforced neglect—to the extent that the number of Armenian churches left in modern Turkey number only a few dozen.
That scale of religious and cultural desecration was the work of a century. But the same effect can now be achieved on shorter timescales, given the resources of the modern world. An example comes from the region known as Nakhichevan—historically an Armenian province, but transferred to Azerbaijan in Soviet times. Up until the 1990s, the landscape of Nakhichevan was dotted with a characteristic Armenian Christian art-form: the “khatchkar,” or cross-stone: essentially a standing stone intricately carved with the cross and other Christian symbols. Some 5,800 such cross-stones proliferated across the region, many of them very ancient, attesting to a centuries-old Armenian Christian presence. But with the fall of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan began systematically eliminating this treasury of Armenian spiritual art—until by today, there are no “khatchkars” left standing in Nakhichevan.
Obliterated alongside them were Nakhichevan’s 89 Armenian churches, and more than 22,000 tombstones.
Sadly, what happened in Nakhichevan in the late 20th century is going on right now, two decades into the 21st, in the region known as Nagorno-Karabagh. That region was historically recognized as the ancient Armenian province of Artsakh, but it was placed within the borders of Azerbaijan in the 1930s, in one of the many injustices of the Soviet period. Karabagh was home to some 4,000 Armenian cultural and religious sites—churches, fortresses, and monuments, many representing exquisite levels of artistry and sophistication.
Tragically, the recent, brutal war in Karabagh during the fall of 2020 has undone much of this work. Under the peace settlement signed by Armenia and Azerbaijan, large areas of Karabagh were ceded to the Azeris—who immediately stepped up their efforts to eradicate the material culture of Christian Armenia from the territories now under their control.
As a result, the world watched as Armenian inscriptions were sand-blasted away, churches and monasteries were bulldozed, by the military of Azerbaijan. In an especially sinister political campaign, Azerbaijan—and it must be said, their allies and clients in the West—have launched an aggressive “disinformation” campaign to cast doubt on the historical presence of Armenians anywhere in the region. That campaign will be all the easier to prosecute with the material evidence of the Armenian presence completely eradicated.
It has not come to that—yet—thank the Lord. But today the safety and integrity of more than a thousand years of Armenian Christian culture are hanging by the slimmest of threads, completely reliant on the protection of peacekeepers from Russia.
The challenge before us is first and foremost a challenge of awareness. We need to work through every institution—national governments, ecumenical and interfaith organizations, the churches themselves, NGO’s, and the United Nations—to make the plight of Christian communities visible and concrete in the eyes of the world.
Our other challenge, of course, is to stand with these faith communities in their time of trial; to speak up on their behalf; and to act in such a way as to preserve their spiritual, material, and human resources.
Archbishop Aykazian delivered these remarks during the panel on “Legal Structures of Persecution & Religious Discrimination” on July 14, 2021.