A girl with an Armenian flag during a demonstration in Yerevan, Armenia, to support the enclave in Nagorno-Karabakh (Ansa-Zumapress)

Nagorno-Karabakh and the short-sightedness of the West

An Armenian monk, Fr. Elia Khilaghbian speaks of the drama of his people and of peace that is still far off: “We must pray for our conversion and for the conversion of those who kill us”.
Luca Fiore

Fr. Elia Khilaghbian is an Armenian monk. He is seventy years old and between 2000 and 2015 he was abbot on the island of San Lazzaro in Venice. Today he is a missionary in his country, in Yerevan, where he runs the school-seminary and coordinates study aid projects in two villages on the border with Azerbaijan. He says his motto is 'Stay and work where obedience sends you, without nostalgia.' He speaks about the situation in his country with a heavy heart. What is happening in Nagorno-Karabakh, in Armenian Artsakh, the Armenian enclave in Azerbaijani territory, is a deep wound. The oblivion and indifference of the international community is the salt that burns that wound. It is a war that began with the decline of the Soviet Union. Thirty years of fire under the ashes and a new flare-up in 2020. In these days, after months of isolation of the region with the population at the brink of exhaustion, the Azerbaijani offensive has crushed the Armenian forces. Today 120,000 people are fleeing the region for fear of persecution and ethnic cleansing. Fr. Elias has no illusions. He does not see short-term peace on the horizon. But the judgement of faith prevails in him.

What do you think about what is happening in Artsakh?
Unfortunately, history repeats itself. The first time was in the late 300s, when Armenia was divided between the Byzantine Empire and the Persian Empire. Even then, the buffer role that our country could play between the two powers was not understood. Today it is the same. Economic interests prevail and it is not understood that Armenia is the last Christian bulwark in the East. We are a very strong power at the gates of Europe, which I doubt can be considered an ally of the West. Indifference is arming the Caucasus like a time bomb ready to explode.

How do you explain the attitude of the international community?
What Western countries are interested in is gas, oil and wealth. Armenia can give none of this. Azerbaijan can. But it is a short-sighted attitude.

The Baku government now controls the territory of the region and has disarmed the Armenians who resisted. What will happen?
It is naive to believe that the Azeris can turn into guarantors of the safety of the Armenians in Artsakh, after they have bombed them, isolated them, reduced them to starvation. In this situation, there is no one who can guarantee help to those who want to leave the region. These people have the right to live safely and peacefully on the land of their ancestors. But staying now means risking their own lives and those of their families. It is an ethnic disaster, a genocide and a betrayal of a people who have lived on that land for millennia.

Is there no hope?
The proverb says: in muddy waters you can fish well. No one knows what will happen tomorrow. All that remains for us is hope in God. Let us think, let us convert, let us do what the people of Israel did in the difficult times of their history: let us turn back to God. If we have a pure heart, the Lord guarantees that even if we die, we will die before his smile. But I do not believe that the good Lord will stand by with folded arms and watch his children sacrificed on the basis of the logic of prosperity. Eventually God's anger, his justice, but also his mercy will move the waters. And let us hope they will be the waters of peace and not those of the flood. We have forgotten charity, fraternity. We only play with politics. Let us see where short-sighted politics takes us. The Armenian people are a Christian people. We are part of the same body, and if one member suffers, the whole body suffers. We ask to be remembered by what should be our family, the Christian family.

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What do you mean when you say that Armenians must convert?
Our people are similar to the Jewish people; we too have always been persecuted for our faith. And for this we are a people much loved by God and, I am sure, for this he will come to our rescue. Men deceive themselves blinded by power, but it is God who holds the reins of history. It is he who guides it. And he knows how to work miracles. He knows how to convert the wicked and remove their hearts of stone, and replace them with a heart of flesh. So we pray for our conversion and for the conversion of those who kill us, that each one may understand that we are all children of one Father. Today we are in darkness and we ask that we be given light, grace and love so that we may live in such a way that, even if we die, we may be like the seed of wheat that, dying, will bear much fruit.