A young refugee from Nagorno-Karabakh A young refugee from Nagorno-Karabakh  (AFP or licensors)

Pope calls attention to humanitarian crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh

Speaking after Sunday's Angelus, Pope Francis recalls the crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh and the serious humanitarian conditions affecting the displaced. He also appeals for the protection of the monasteries and places of worship, expressions of faith and signs of fraternity.

By Thaddeus Jones & Stefan J. Bos

Speaking at the conclusion of the Sunday Angelus, Pope Francis renewed his concern about the grave humanitarian crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh affecting displaced people in the South Caucasus region.

According to the UN refugee agency UNHCR, more than 100,000 refugees have fled to Armenia since 23 September. The UN agency is working to deliver life-saving assistance and supplies, especially before the colder weather takes hold. 

The Pope also added a special appeal for the protection of the monasteries and places of worship in the region. He expressed his hopes that "they can be respected and protected as part of the local culture, expressions of faith and a sign of a fraternity that makes it possible to live together despite differences."

Pope Francis' appeal to Azerbaijan to protect houses of worship in Nagorno Karabakh comes as Russia has urged new peace talks. However, Armenian Christian refugees are reluctant to return to an area they called home for generations...

120,000 displaced persons

Tearful, exhausted, and with painful memories, some 120,000 Armenians have passed through the Armenian border town of Goris, an important seat of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

They fled Nagorno-Karabakh, leaving behind their historic Christian heritage embedded in the enclave, which was overrun by forces from Azerbaijan.

Christian aid workers share Pope Francis's concerns that ancient monasteries and churches may now be destroyed.

Joel Veldkamp, a spokesman for the rights group Christian Solidarity International, is shocked. "I saw a video of a news source that I trust of Azerbaijani troops firing on a 13th-century monastery in Nagorno-Karabakh. That is just the beginning," he said.    

Yet, Hikmet Hajiyev, an advisor of the president of Azerbaijan, claims Armenians have nothing to fear. "Indeed, we do regret that the civilian population has decided, many of them, to leave. And, of course, in this case, we respect freedom of choice and freedom of movement," he stressed.    

Don't tell that to Armenian journalist Siranush Sargsyan, who recalls the horrors of Azerbaijan's recapture of Nagorno-Karabakh. "My neighbor lost one of his sons. Another one, my history teacher died and his son was wounded," in attacks by Azerbaijan. "And this is only from my village. I met several mothers who lost two sons, three sons," she said while interrupting her words as she cried.

"And some of the [survivors] they don't know, there is no information. We lost so many people. We almost all know each other. And this is like my family story," the journalist added.      

Relative freedom

Sargsyan and others enjoyed relative freedom after the enclave separatists broke away from Azerbaijan following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s.

As Azerbaijan has recaptured the region, virtually the entire Armenian population has left.

Broadcaster Al Jazeera's reporter Osama Bin Javaid witnessed how the main city in Nagorno-Karabakh, Khankendi, had been all but abandoned. "Here in the town center, you will hear nothing if I go quiet. There is absolutely no one who is left here apart from a few elderly, disabled, and others," he said amid chairs and other belongings that appeared to have been left behind in a hurry.

"Some puppies have been following us around, possibly looking for food. It is hard to describe the feeling when you enter a town when you have looked at pictures of it where there was so much activity. But now it is a ghost town with no soul left," the reporter explained.    
Russian President Vladimir Putin said over the weekend that he believed a peace deal between Armenia and Azerbaijan was achievable if both sides showed goodwill.

He earlier proposed holding talks between the two nations in Moscow. But whatever the outcome of those discussions, the refugees here seem to have no appetite to return to Nagorno-Karabakh under Azerbaijan's rule.

Listen to the report


Thank you for reading our article. You can keep up-to-date by subscribing to our daily newsletter. Just click here

15 October 2023, 12:39