Why Lebanese-Armenians feel the pull of the Nagorno-Karabakh war

Why Lebanese-Armenians feel the pull of the Nagorno-Karabakh war
The head of a Red Cross mission called for an end to indiscriminate shelling in the conflict amid mounting civilian deaths. (AFP)
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Updated 04 November 2020

Why Lebanese-Armenians feel the pull of the Nagorno-Karabakh war

Why Lebanese-Armenians feel the pull of the Nagorno-Karabakh war
  • Descendants of the Ottoman genocide are volunteering to fight as Armenia and Azerbaijan remain locked in deadly conflict
  • For many members of the Armenian diaspora, the war is about more than just territory: it is an assault on their ethnic identity

BEIRUT: Kevork Hadjian was a much loved opera singer, famous for his mesmerizing voice and the allure he lent to patriotic Armenian anthems. Born and raised in southern Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, the ethnic Armenian lived for a time in Kuwait before moving to Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, with his family in 2004.

An ardent patriot, Hadjian held a special place in his heart for Artsakh, the ancient Armenian name for Nagorno-Karabakh. He fought there briefly in 2016 in what became known as the Four-Day War.

So when Azerbaijan targeted the breakaway region’s capital Stepanakert on Sept. 27, the singer again volunteered to fight for its independence. Just over a week later, on Oct. 6, he was killed on the front line. He was 49.

Hadjian is among the more recognizable casualties of the recent fighting. Their deaths have become something of a rallying cry for young Armenian-Lebanese tempted to follow in their footsteps.

Lebanon is home to a significant Armenian diaspora, descendants of the 1.5 million ethnic Armenians who escaped the genocide 100 years ago — a crime that Turkey to this day refuses to acknowledge.

But the passage of time has failed to quiet Armenian nationalist fervor, stoked anew by the war in the South Caucasus. “Armenians have already seen genocide,” Ishkhan Y, a Lebanon-born Armenian, told Arab News in Beirut. “This is history repeating itself in Artsakh. As Armenians of the diaspora, we are very concerned and upset by what is going on in Artsakh.”




Lebanon is home to a significant Armenian diaspora. (AFP)

Whispers around Beirut and social-media chatter tell of ethnic Armenians who have left Lebanon to join the war, like many others in the wider diaspora. In Bourj Hammoud, the Armenian district of Beirut, many walls are graffitied with slogans criticizing both Turkey and Azerbaijan.

The same is happening in Hadjian’s birthplace in the Bekaa Valley, where villagers say young men are leaving for Nagorno-Karabakh. “There were no calls from the Armenian government or from a political party for them to go,” one villager, who did not want to be named, told Arab News. “They left because they felt it was their duty to go and fight.”

Fighting erupted in late September between Azerbaijan and ethnic Armenians in the contested territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, reigniting the decades-old dispute. Turkey is widely accused of encouraging Azerbaijan to launch the latest offensive, and has sent weapons and funding to support Baku’s war effort.

Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous region with a population of around 150,000, is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but is claimed and governed by the ethnic Armenians who live there. A diplomatic solution to end the dispute has evaded the warring parties since the 1994 ceasefire.

As the former Soviet republics accuse one another of launching unprovoked attacks, towns and villages have since been indiscriminately shelled, some with banned cluster munitions, according to the rights watchdog Amnesty International. Entire buildings have been reduced to rubble, forcing thousands of civilians from their homes.

Two ceasefire deals have failed to hold — the first brokered by Russia on Oct. 10 and another by the US on Oct. 18. Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, held separate meetings with the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan in Washington on Oct. 22, taking over from Moscow’s earlier attempts at establishing a dialogue.

According to a statement from the Armenian Ministry of Defense on Oct. 27, Azerbaijani forces shelled Armenian border guards near the country’s southeast frontier with Iran, expanding the conflict into Armenia proper.

Presenting Baku’s side of the conflict in an oped in Arab News on Oct.2, Ramil Imranov, an Azerbaijani diplomat, wrote: “Armenia keeps trying to legalize the consequences of the war and raise the international prestige of the separatist regime established by Armenia in the occupied Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan. By constantly violating the cease-fire achieved in 1994, Armenia tries to consolidate the existing status-quo.”

A member of the Armenian diaspora, who asked to remain anonymous, said: “Like all Armenians, we as Lebanese-Armenians believe the only solution in the end is a peaceful solution.” But for many Armenians, the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh is about more than the territory itself: It is part of a wider assault on the essence of Armenian identity.

“Whether it is Turkey or Azerbaijan, both states have a tradition of historical revisionism towards Armenians,” he said. “Turkey does so with the Armenian genocide and Azerbaijan has done so regarding the history of Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh.

“Since the 1960s, Azerbaijani authorities have relayed a revisionist history of the Armenian people, claiming that everything related to Armenian history on Azerbaijani land is actually related to the Caucasian Albanians,” he said.

“The same historical revisionism extends to the Azeris’ idea of Armenia and its territories, all of which they believe belong to Azerbaijan. Azeris deny our rightful place in history.”

Many Armenians claim Ankara has a neo-Ottoman agenda and is working hand in glove with Azerbaijan to exterminate them, pointing to the televised remarks in July by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan: “We will continue to fulfill the mission our grandfathers have carried out for centuries in the Caucasus.”

Armenian-Lebanese artist Manuella Guiragossian, whose grandmother survived the genocide, believes Turkish government policies are infused with anti-Armenian sentiments.

“If you can imagine what they did to my grandparents during the genocide, you can also imagine what they will do to an entire Armenian population today,” she said. “Turkey’s objective is to do what they did during the Ottoman Empire and take more land and unite Azerbaijan and Turkey and totally remove Armenia from the map.”

Ankara and Baku have both denied accusations that mercenaries from Turkish-controlled parts of Syria and Libya are involved in the conflict, but reports of Syrian casualties of the Nagorno-Karabakh war are trickling in from multiple sources.

Some members of the Armenians diaspora want the international community to take the Nagorno-Karabakh situation far more seriously. American socialite Kim Kardashian West, who is of Armenian descent, has donated $1 million to the California-based Armenia Fund to support the humanitarian effort.

“Even if the whole planet does not support the Armenians, you have a massive number of Armenians rising up all over the world right now, from Los Angeles to Boston and London and Paris,” said Guiragossian.

For Armenian-Lebanese like Ishkhan, the only way to stop the fighting is through international pressure. “Peace and safety can only be guaranteed through the recognition of a free, independent Artsakh by the international community,” he said.

“Armenians have to be able to live freely, safely and securely. Children must be able to go to school, mothers should not cry over their lost sons and husbands because of an insane war, supported by Turkey’s ambitions, financial means and military technology and fueled by their allies.”

Until then, many young Lebanon-born Armenians rightly or wrongly are convinced their best option is to follow the example of volunteers like Hadjian.

“We have no choice but to fight for our land and our country,” said Ishkhan. “We must win this war.”

Twitter: @rebeccaaproctor


Top Shiite cleric tells pope Iraq Christians should live in peace

Top Shiite cleric tells pope Iraq Christians should live in peace
Updated 06 March 2021

Top Shiite cleric tells pope Iraq Christians should live in peace

Top Shiite cleric tells pope Iraq Christians should live in peace
  • The meeting, on the second day of the first-ever papal visit to Iraq, marked a landmark moment in modern religious history
  • Sistani, 90, “affirmed his concern that Christian citizens should live like all Iraqis in peace and security, and with their full constitutional rights,”

NAJAF, Iraq: Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the authority for most of the world’s Shiite Muslims, told Pope Francis in a historic meeting in the Iraqi city of Najaf Saturday that the country’s Christians should live in “peace.”
The meeting, on the second day of the first-ever papal visit to Iraq, marked a landmark moment in modern religious history.
Pope Francis is defying a second wave of coronavirus cases and renewed security fears to make a “long-awaited” trip to Iraq, aiming to comfort the country’s ancient Christian community and deepen his dialogue with other religions.
The meeting between the two elderly men lasted 50 minutes, with Sistani’s office putting out a statement shortly afterwards thanking Francis, 84, for visiting the holy city of Najaf.
Sistani, 90, “affirmed his concern that Christian citizens should live like all Iraqis in peace and security, and with their full constitutional rights,” it said.
His office published an image of the two, neither wearing masks: Sistani in a black turban with his wispy grey beard reaching down to his black robe and Francis all in white, looking directly at the grand ayatollah.
Sistani is extremely reclusive and rarely grants meetings but made an exception to host Francis, an outspoken proponent of interreligious dialogue.
The Pope had landed earlier at Najaf airport, where posters had been set up featuring a famous saying by Ali, the fourth caliph and the Prophet Muhammad’s relative, who is buried in the holy city.
“People are of two kinds, either your brothers in faith or your equals in humanity,” read the banners.
The meeting is one of the highlights of Francis’s four-day trip to war-scarred Iraq, where Sistani has played a key role in tamping down tensions in recent decades.
It took months of careful negotiations between Najaf and the Vatican to secure the one-on-one meeting.
“We feel proud of what this visit represents and we thank those who made it possible,” said Mohamed Ali Bahr Al-Ulum, a senior cleric in Najaf.
Pope Francis, a strong proponent of interfaith dialogue, has met top Sunni clerics in several Muslim-majority countries, including Bangladesh, Morocco, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.
Sistani, meanwhile, is followed by most of the world’s 200 million Shiites — a minority among Muslims but the majority in Iraq — and is a national figure for Iraqis.
“Ali Sistani is a religious leader with a high moral authority,” said Cardinal Miguel Angel Ayuso Guixot, the head of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and a specialist in Islamic studies.
Sistani began his religious studies at the age of five, climbing through the ranks of Shiite clergy to grand ayatollah in the 1990s.
While Saddam Hussein was in power, he languished under house arrest for years, but emerged after the US-led invasion toppled the repressive regime in 2003 to play an unprecedented public role.
In 2019, he stood with Iraqi protesters demanding better public services and rejecting external interference in Iraq’s domestic affairs.
On Friday in Baghdad, Pope Francis made a similar plea.
“May partisan interests cease, those outside interests who don’t take into account the local population,” Francis said.
Sistani has had a complicated relationship with his birthplace Iran, where the other main seat of Shiite religious authority lies: Qom.
While Najaf affirms the separation of religion and politics, Qom believes the top cleric — Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — should also govern.
Iraqi clerics and Christian leaders said the visit could strengthen Najaf’s standing compared to Qom.
“The Najaf school has great prestige and is more secular than the more religious Qom school,” Ayuso said.
“Najaf places more weight on social affairs,” he added.
In Abu Dhabi in 2019, the Pope met Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb, the imam of the Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo and a key authority for Sunni Muslims.
They signed a text encouraging Christian-Muslim dialogue, which Catholic clerics hoped Sistani would also endorse, but clerical sources in Najaf told AFP it is unlikely.
While the Pope has been vaccinated and encouraged others to get the jab, Sistani’s office has not announced his vaccination.
Iraq is currently gripped by a resurgence of coronavirus cases, recording more than 5,000 infections and more than two dozen deaths daily.
Following his visit to the grand ayatollah, the pope will head to the desert site of the ancient city of Ur — believed to be the birthplace of the Prophet Abraham, common patriarch of the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths — where he will host an interfaith service, with many of Iraq’s other religious minorities in attendance.


Officials: 18 killed as truck crashes into bus outside Cairo

Officials: 18 killed as truck crashes into bus outside Cairo
Updated 06 March 2021

Officials: 18 killed as truck crashes into bus outside Cairo

Officials: 18 killed as truck crashes into bus outside Cairo

CAIRO: A trailer-truck crashed into a microbus, killing at least 18 people and injuring five others south of the Egyptian capital, authorities said.
The country’s chief prosecutor’s office said in a statement the crash took place late Friday on a highway near the town of Atfih, 100 kilometers (62 miles) south of Cairo.
The Cairo-Assiut eastern road, located on the eastern side of the Nile River, links Cairo to the country’s southern provinces and is known for speeding traffic.
Police authorities said the truck’s tire exploded, causing it to overturn and collide with the microbus. The victims were taken to nearby hospitals, the statement said. The truck driver was arrested.
Traffic accidents claim thousands of lives every year in Egypt, which has a poor transportation safety record. The crashes are mostly caused by speeding, bad roads or poor enforcement of traffic laws.
The country’s official statistics agency says around 10,000 road accidents took place in 2019, the most recent year for which statistics are available, leaving over 3,480 dead. In 2018, there were 8,480 car accidents, causing over 3,080 deaths.


Israel to further ease its coronavirus restrictions from Sunday

Israel to further ease its coronavirus restrictions from Sunday
Updated 06 March 2021

Israel to further ease its coronavirus restrictions from Sunday

Israel to further ease its coronavirus restrictions from Sunday
  • Green passport holders can enter cafes and restaurants and choose to sit indoors or outdoors
  • At the airport, Israel will only allow 3,000 Israelis to enter the country per day

DUBAI: Israel announced it will further ease its coronavirus measures from Sunday, national daily The Jerusalem Post reported.
Students between grades seven and 10 will attend classes physically in green, yellow and orange cities, the report said.
The country’s “traffic system” has identified “green” cities as those with lowest COVID-19 cases, while the second lowest infection rates are “yellow,” followed by “orange” and “red.”
Israel had also required people entering cafes, restaurants and hotels to submit a green passport, which can be obtained through the health ministry for anyone who has taken the two shots of the coronavirus vaccine for at least a week.
But “children below the age of 16, who are not allowed to be vaccinated, will not be able to accompany their vaccinated parents,” the report added.
Green passport holders can enter cafes and restaurants and choose to sit indoors or outdoors.
Non-vaccinated people can only sit outside. Hotels will also reopen, allowing holders of the passport to access a wide range of activities.
At the airport, Israel will only allow 3,000 Israelis to enter the country per day.
New arrivals will be required to quarantine and must present a negative COVID-19 test result and be tested on arrival.
Meanwhile, the Coronavirus Knowledge and Information Center has warned that the country may witness another outbreak, as around 5 percent of Israel’s population have tested positive each day.
The health ministry said more than 4.9 million people have taken at least one shot of the COVID-19 vaccine, including 3.6 million who have already taken their second shot.
More than half of the country’s 9 million-strong population have already received the two recommended doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine since the inoculation drive began in December.
Israel has registered more than 796,000 cases of Covid-19, including over 5,800 deaths.


Egypt's Sisi arrives in Sudan, will hold talks on Ethiopia’s dam

Egypt's Sisi arrives in Sudan, will hold talks on Ethiopia’s dam
Updated 22 min 45 sec ago

Egypt's Sisi arrives in Sudan, will hold talks on Ethiopia’s dam

Egypt's Sisi arrives in Sudan, will hold talks on Ethiopia’s dam

CAIRO: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah-al Sisi will hold talks over Ethiopia's Blue Nile mega-dam during his visit to Sudan on Saturday, according to the Egyptian presidency.  

Spokesman for Egyptian Presidency Bassem Rady said al-Sisi’s visit to Sudan comes “as a consolidation of Egypt's efforts under the leadership of the president to support Sudan and its brotherly people during the current important historical stage the [country] is going through.” 

The visit will witness discussions on the most important regional and continental issues developments, it added, “especially the issue of the Renaissance Dam, security in the Red Sea, and developments on the Sudanese borders.”

The visit is the first of its kind by the Egyptian president since the formation of the Transitional Sovereignty Council in Sudan. 


LIVE: Pope Francis meets Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani on day two of Iraq visit

LIVE: Pope Francis meets Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani on day two of Iraq visit
Updated 11 min 45 sec ago

LIVE: Pope Francis meets Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani on day two of Iraq visit

LIVE: Pope Francis meets Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani on day two of Iraq visit
  • Pope’s visit comes as Iraq attempts to claw its way to stability

DUBAI: Pope Francis has left the home of Iraq’s top Shiite cleric in southern Iraq on Saturday after the first meeting between the leaders of Roman Catholicism and Shiite Islam.
The Shiite cleric, Ali Al-Sistani, met the Pope at his home in Najaf, the seat of the Iraqi Shiite clergy, on the second day of the pontiff’s historic tour of Iraq.
Pope Francis arrived in Iraq on Friday and made a speech in which he called for an end to extremism, violence and corruption.
The head of the Catholic church began the first-ever papal trip to the country by meeting government officials in Baghdad, before traveling to a church where Christians were massacred by militants in 2010.
Pope Francis was greeted at the airport by Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi before meeting with President Barham Salih at the Presidential Palace.
His visit comes as Iraq attempts to claw its way to stability after years of sectarian conflict, the Daesh occupation, chronic corruption, and widespread anger at government officials for failing to provide basic services.
At Our Lady of Salvation church, he paid tribute to the 58 people who were killed in an extremist attack in 2010, one of the deadliest targeting Christians.

Follow live coverage of his second day itinerary below (All times GMT)

0934: Pope Francis is set to return Baghdad after attending an interfaith meeting at the ruins of Ur in southern Iraq, the traditional birthplace of the Prophet Abraham, father of Muslim and Christian faiths.

Above, a general view of the ancient archeological site of Ur, traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Abraham, in Ur near Nassiriya, Iraq. Iraqiya TV/Reuters TV via Reuters

0908: Pope Francis is urging Iraq’s Muslim and Christian religious leaders to put aside animosities and work together for peace and unity during an interfaith meeting in the traditional birthplace of the Prophet Abraham, father of their faiths.
He told the gathering: “This is true religiosity: to worship God and to love our neighbor.”
Francis traveled to the ruins of Ur in southern Iraq on Saturday to reinforce his message of interreligious tolerance and fraternity during the first-ever papal visit to Iraq, a country riven by religious and ethnic divisions.

Pope Francis said that he prays for ‘peace, unity’ in the Middle East ‘especially Syria’ during the interreligious meeting. (AFP)

Francis told the faith leaders that it was fitting that they come together in Ur, “back to our origins, to the sources of God’s work, to the birth of our religions” to pray together for peace as children of Abraham, the prophet common to Muslims, Christians and Jews.
He said: “From this place, where faith was born, from the land of our father Abraham, let us affirm that God is merciful and that the greatest blasphemy is to profane his name by hating our brothers and sisters. Hostility, extremism and violence are not born of a religious heart: they are betrayals of religion.”
He said there could never be peace as long as Iraqis viewed people of different faiths as the “other.”
He said: “Peace does not demand winners or losers, but rather brothers and sisters who, for all the misunderstandings and hurts of the past, are journeying from conflict to unity.”

0805: Pope Francis attends an interreligious meeting at the Plain of Ur during day two of his apostolic tour of Iraq.

The meeting takes place in the shadow of Ur’s magnificent ziggurat, the 6,000-year-old archaeological complex near Nasiriyah in southern Iraq.

Pope Francis attends an interreligious meeting at the archaeological site of Ur near Nasiriyah, southern Iraq on March 6, 2021. (AFP)

0728: Top Shiite cleric Ali Al-Sistani has told Pope Francis that Iraq Christians should live in ‘peace’, a statement from his office said.

Al-Sistani ‘affirmed his concern that Christian citizens should live like all Iraqis in peace and security, and with their full constitutional rights,’ the statement office said.

For its part, the Vatican said Francis thanked Al-Sistani and the Shiite people for having “raised his voice in defense of the weakest and most persecuted” during some of the most violent times in Iraq’s recent history.
He said Al-Sistani’s message of peace affirmed “the sacredness of human life and the importance of the unity of the Iraqi people.”

Doves are released to mark Pope Francis’s private meeting Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani at his home in Najaf. (Vatican Media)

0700: Pope Francis leaves the home of Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani in Najaf after meeting with him. He is expected to depart for Nassiriya to lead an interreligious meeting at the Plain of Ur in southern Iraq which is revered as the birthplace of Abraham, father of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The Pope will afterwards return to Baghdad.

The visit was carried live on Iraqi television, and residents cheered the meeting of two respected faith leaders.
“We welcome the pope’s visit to Iraq and especially to the holy city of Najaf and his meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani,” said Najaf resident Haidar Al-Ilyawi. “It is an historic visit and hope it will be good for Iraq and the Iraqi people.”

Pope Francis leaves the home of Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani in Najaf after meeting with him. (Screenshot)

0505: Pope Francis arrives in Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani’s home Najaf.

The Vatican’s hope was that Francis would sign a document with Al-Sistani pledging human fraternity, just as he did with Sunni Islam’s influential grand imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed El-Tayeb, based in Egypt.

0345: Pope Francis departs from Baghdad and will travel by plane to the cities of Najaf and Ur.

- with agencies

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Go to Arab News’ dedicated In Focus section on the Pope's visit to Iraq for coverage of the historic trip. Click here.