Can't Armenians and Azerbaijanis just get along?

The Washington Post published a news feature the other day about the stunningly complicated and delicate post-Soviet-era standoff in and around Nagorno-Karabakh, which pits Armenians against Azerbaijanis. On top of the story, of course, is a feature photograph -- the first in a series. If you have ever seen a news feature about Eastern Orthodoxy you have probably seen this photo. It shows worshipers (represented, perhaps, by one or two symbolic hands in the frame) gathered around one of the sandboxes kept near the doors of Orthodox sanctuaries, which are there to safely hold those lovely golden beeswax candles that the faithful light as they make prayers for loved ones, for those who have died, as a sign of thanksgiving, out of concerns about difficulties in life, etc., etc.

For copyright reasons, I cannot show you the photo -- but click here to go see it.

When I first started reading this long piece, I got hung up on the cutline that was underneath this photo. The photo, once again, showed people in prayer and worship -- perhaps even people praying about those lost in the years of bloodshed in this troubled region.

The cutline, however, stated:

Peace remains elusive as Armenians and Azerbaijanis, unleashed from Soviet control 20 years ago, keep each other in the gunsights.

I sensed a bit of a disconnect there.

Thus, as I read the story, I wondered if the Post team (backed by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting) was ever going to get around to the religious issues that are at the emotional heart of the conflict. Meanwhile, the story starts like this:

STEPANAKERT, Nagorno-Karabakh -- This is where the first war set off by the Soviet collapse took place. And it may be where the next one breaks out.

Twenty years ago, Armenians and Azerbaijanis, unleashed from Soviet control, waged a bitter struggle for this mountainous region in the South Caucasus. A cease-fire was reached in 1994, after about 30,000 people had been killed, leaving Nagorno-Karabakh outside Azerbaijan’s control, as an unrecognized, de facto republic in the hands of ethnic Armenians.

Since then, no one on either side has had the will to hammer out a settlement. Tension has been put to use by those in power -- in Azerbaijan, in Armenia proper and here in separatist Nagorno-Karabakh. Democracy, human rights, an unfettered press, a genuine opposition -- these are the sorts of things that get put aside in times of crisis. And here, the crisis has been going on for two decades and shows little sign of letting up.

This is one of those stories that mixes politics, ethnicity, centuries of complications and, of course, religion into one complex picture. However, mainstream journalists often seem reluctant to deal with the role of religion in these stories -- even if that is one of the first things that people on the ground at the scene will talk about.

Roughly halfway into this report, readers finally hear one of those caught up in the conflict say: "We will live and prove to the world that Karabakh is the heart of the Armenian nation and the spirit of the Armenian nation. The land on which we live has become sacred from the blood of our martyrs."

You see, the Armenians tend to use words such as "sacred" and "martyrs" in a religious context (and they have had to do this a lot). A few lines later, another Armenian voice calls Karabakh "holy."

Finally, a few more paragraphs later, readers get a glimpse of the religious history involved in all of this:

The Armenian kingdom was the first to adopt Christianity as its official religion, in 301, and Azerbaijanis are Muslims, though both sides like to play down the religious divide. (Iran favors Armenia, for one thing.) Yet Armenians marked their tanks with white crosses. And at the mountaintop Gandzasar Monastery, where the St. John the Baptist Cathedral was consecrated in 1240, there is a regular liturgy for the “martyrs” of the war.

“The strongest thing that keeps us here is our faith,” Prime Minister Ara Harutyunyan said. Then, using the Armenian name for Karabakh -- Artsakh -- he invoked a prophet who is a major figure in both Christianity and Islam. “In Artsakh, we have 70,000 Abrahams. We fully realize our children can become sacrifices any day. But we still live here, still give birth to children. And we think this is the main guarantee of our security.”

There's a lot more to the story, including some strong language about the role of corruption in Armenian politics (and among the Azerbaijanis, perhaps?). In the background loom other nations that could get involved -- such as Turkey and Russia. Religion is woven into those connections, too.

Everyone agrees that there might be another war. That would be bad. Children and farm workers are still being killed by mines from the most recent conflict in a region that has seen more than its share of conflict.

Religion seems to have a little bit to do with it. But clearly the main problems are political. Between the lines, the message seems to be this: If only the combatants were not so emotional about all of this -- with their talk of "sacred" ground and "martyrs."

I finished the story and read it again. Twice. I still do not know what it was all about.

But religion does seem to play a small role in the region. Just a little role, like at the beginning and then at the end of almost everything that happens in and around Nagorno-Karabakh. Oh, and in the middle, too.

IMAGE: St. John the Baptist Orthodox Cathedral at Gandzasar Monastery.

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