July 24th, 2019
“If we want God’s victory, we must never hate.”
“I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the Gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this: that He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” Philippians 1:4-5
In June Baroness Cox and her team from the charity HART visited the small, historically Armenian Christian country of Nagorno-Karabakh. It was cut off from Armenia in Soviet times, and forcibly relocated in the predominantly Muslim country of Azerbaijan, gaining some de facto independence following a very high intensity war from 1991 to 1994. Nagorno-Karabakh is unrecognised by any other nation: the international community regards it as a part of Azerbaijan.
Not everyone would feel comfortable to join Baroness Cox, applying for a visa from an unrecognised government to offer support to a country which officially does not exist, and which is only holding its borders by force of arms.
Some people – rightly – feel they can go, and some – equally rightly – feel that they cannot. That is why the HART team offers to serve, and to extend the Church’s mission. That is why the Church has always needed people like Epaphroditus who, as Paul writes in his Letter to the Philippians, “almost died for the sake of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me”.
It is the same language which Paul uses in Colossians 1:24, when he writes that he himself “completes what is lacking in the suffering of Christ”. Some people seem to have a mission to complete what is lacking. Like Baroness Cox.
It is a strange experience walking along a road in Nagorno-Karabakh with Baroness Cox. Everyone you meet recognises her, stops her, and wants their picture taken with her. This was her 88th visit to the country. During the war from 1991 to 1994 she would fly in repeatedly under fire to bring medical supplies, and distribute them in the capital city of Stepanakert, which was being pounded by grad missiles, 500kg bombs and cluster bombs. The people have not forgotten.
It was after his own home was destroyed that Archbishop Martirosyan of Stepanakert said: “We do not hate – we believe in a God of love. If we want God’s victory, we must never hate. We must always love.”
The first mission of the team on this latest trip was one of advocacy: reminding the world that Nagorno-Karabakh exists, and arguing that it has a right to exist, although it is under constant threat of further military offensives by Azerbaijan.
Judith Farnworth, the British Ambassador to Armenia whom the team met in Yerevan, summarised succinctly the position of the UK Government: “We do not recognise Nagorno-Karabakh. Full stop.” Azerbaijan, which is a strategic supplier of oil, is clearly winning the hearts of the international community, and an alternative voice is needed.
Baroness Cox met with both the President and the Foreign Minister of Nagorno-Karabakh to hear their views and news. A sense of isolation was evident, along with the struggle which comes from being unable to access international funding.
HART is one of the very few NGOs prepared to work in Nagorno-Karabakh, which gives it both a practical and symbolic importance in providing humanitarian aid. It was at the end of that first tragic war, when communities on both sides were bereaved and driven off their land, that Baroness Cox founded a rehabilitation centre to care for the wounded.
Under the leadership of its dynamic director, Vardan Tadevosyan, the centre has grown and flourished, and now has a staff of 73 treating over 1000 patients a year. HART funds around 40% of the running costs, paying for activities such as sport, music and art, and funding holidays and outings for the disabled which the small government of Nagorno-Karabakh cannot afford.
It was moving to meet Mkhitar, who was shot through the spine during the war. Initially suicidal and suffering dreadfully from bed sores, he was rescued by Vardan, whose team nursed him back to health. Vardan encouraged him to develop his skill in woodcarving, through which Mkhitar regained his dignity, sense of purpose and ability to support his family.
It costs £50 a month to provide Mkhitar with necessary medical supplies such as urine bags, sanitary pads and catheters; this is one of the things which HART’s contribution goes towards.
Nagorno-Karabakh is a country alive with Christian faith. A large mountainside cross has recently been erected overlooking Stepanakert; churches are being built and young people are filling them. During the Soviet period hundreds of church buildings were destroyed, and in 1930 all churches were closed and all priests were exiled.
The team stopped to visit and pray in monasteries as it passed. One of the most moving was Davidank, where Fr Johannes serves as a priest. He showed us the sanctuary of his church, which was one of the few to survive intact during Azeri occupation. The farmers who kept their cattle there had lit bonfires which had covered the walls in a thick layer of black soot, concealing the ancient Christian artwork beneath.
Only when Fr Johannes had the walls cleaned a couple of years ago did beautiful paintings appear, a witness to a living Christian tradition going back to medieval times. It is a powerful symbol of the renewal currently taking place in Nagorno-Karabakh, as a besieged people turn to their faith for strength.
The word which Paul uses in Philippians to describe partnership is koinonia or communion. Thank you for your communion with us and with the Christian people of Nagorno-Karabakh. We believe that God is working in this small country through the ministry of HART and the prayers of faithful partners like yourselves.
Please pray especially for:
• International recognition of the right of Nagorno-Karabakh to exist, following its attempted overrun by Azerbaijan in 2016
• Peace, and no further military action
With Baroness Cox and the HART team
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