Some 120,000 ethnic Armenians remain in "grave danger" following a Sept. 20 ceasefire, said a U.S. congressman and a California-based Armenian Catholic bishop.
The agreement followed a Sept. 19 offensive launched by Azerbaijan troops against Nagorno-Karabakh, a historic Armenian enclave (known in Armenian by its ancient name, Artsakh), located in southwestern Azerbaijan and internationally recognized as part of that nation.
The attacks, which Azerbaijani forces called an "anti-terror" operation, killed at least 32 people, including seven civilians, and wounded another 200.
As part of the Russian-brokered ceasefire, Nagorno-Karabakh forces have acceded to Azerbaijan's demands for complete disarmament.
Russia, which has peacekeeping forces in the region, said it had evacuated some 2,000 villagers since the Sept. 19 offensive, with more than 10,000 reported to have converged at the airport next to Russia's base. Despite the ceasefire, explosions and additional clashes have been reported.
Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev declared in a Sept. 20 televised address that his nation had vanquished the Armenian enclave "with an iron fist." The phrase evoked Azerbaijan's 2020 "Operation Iron Fist," an offensive seeking to reclaim territory from Nagorno-Karabakh that saw 3,000 Azerbaijani soldiers and 4,000 Armenian soldiers killed. Aliyev claimed that the territory's ethnic Armenians would be able to participate in Azerbaijan's civic life and practice Christianity freely.
But Bishop Mikael A. Mouradian of the California-based Armenian Catholic Eparchy of Our Lady of Nareg told OSV News he was "afraid" that Azerbaijan would engage in ethnic cleansing of the Armenians remaining in Nagorno-Karabakh.
He cited recent updates posted by the enclave's human rights ombudsman, Gegham Stepanyan, who in a Sept. 21 tweet said there was "a humanitarian collapse in Artsakh.
"More than 10,000 evacuated people are currently staying in basements without proper food, water, electricity, and all other basic conditions of living," said Stepanyan in his tweet. "Azerbaijan is committing a genocide in Artsakh in real time with the tacit consent of the international community."
While Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said his nation is prepared to accept 40,000 of the enclave's families, Bishop Mouradian expressed concerns over a report in the Armenian newspaper Hraparak that Azerbaijani representatives had given Nagorno-Karabakh representatives a list of people to be handed over – among them, former leaders of the enclave, as well as state and military figures.
Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J. – a Catholic lawmaker who recently chaired two congressional hearings on the plight of Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh and authored the Azerbaijan Democracy Act in 2015 – issued a Sept. 20 statement calling on U.S. President Joe Biden to "immediately push the United Nations Security Council to establish a mandate and peacekeeping mission to protect the Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh."
"The people of Nagorno-Karabakh are in a moment of grave danger," said Smith, who hails from the Trenton Diocese and is a member of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish, Whiting. "They have been forced to disarm and surrender their independence to a ruthless dictator whose government has repeatedly committed horrific abuses against them over many years, expressed its will to ethnically cleanse them, and even initiated a genocide by starvation with the blockade of the Lachin Corridor."
Since December 2022, the three-mile corridor – the only road leading from Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh – had been closed by Azerbaijan, depriving the enclave's residents of food, baby formula, oil, medication, hygienic products and fuel.
In a Sept. 7 statement, Bishop David J. Malloy of Rockford, Illinois, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on International Justice and Peace, had called for a peaceful end to the blockade, which left the ethnic Armenian Christians at risk of what experts called "genocide by starvation."
On Sept. 18, the International Committee of the Red Cross said it had managed to bring shipments of wheat flour and essential medical items to the enclave after "persistent diplomatic efforts."
In his Sept. 20 statement, Smith said his Sept. 6 emergency hearing on Nagorno-Karabakh had featured "extensive evidence of the Azerbaijani government's record of atrocities, including a list of perpetrators who are responsible.
"I urge President Biden to immediately dispatch diplomats and expert observers in the Nagorno-Karabakh region to monitor the situation and immediately report any atrocity or abuse," said Smith. "The Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh have, as ever, every right to continue to live in their ancient homeland – and to do so in safety."
Gina Christian is a national reporter for OSV News. Follow her on X at @GinaJesseReina.