NEW YORK — Armenian leaders in the U.S. are calling on the federal government to cease military aid to Azerbaijan until it stops harassing Christians and destroying Christian sites in areas under its control. The persecution was supposed to have ended, the leaders say, with a 2020 ceasefire in a conflict between the two states.
“The destruction continues, and it is something that should somehow be responded to, and the U.S. is a good nation to say to Azerbaijan that you are continuing all of this destruction of the Christian heritage of Armenia, and we cannot stand for that,” Zaven Khanijan, executive director of the Armenian Missionary Association of America told The Tablet.
The U.S. has long-standing legislation — Section 907 of the 1992 FREEDOM Support Act — that restricts its ability to issue aid to the government of Azerbaijan. However, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken waived Section 907 last April.
Section 907 formally establishes restrictions on U.S. assistance to the government of Azerbaijan “until the President determines, and so reports to the Congress, that the Government of Azerbaijan is taking demonstrable steps to cease all blockades and other offensive uses of force against Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.”
Nagorno-Karabakh is an Armenian-populated area of the Caucasus that is recognized internationally as part of Azerbaijan, but has been a de facto independent state — calling itself Artsakh — since 1991. Armenia has supported Artsakh and had occupied parts of Azerbaijan surrounding the enclave for decades until the 2020 conflict. During the short war, Azerbaijani forces retook large swathes of territory, essentially cutting Nagorno-Karabakh off from Armenia, save for one small corridor currently protected by Russian peacekeepers.
The ceasefire has been spotty, with several border incidents leading to deaths on both sides. Several Christian religious sites were destroyed during the 2020 conflict, with Armenia claiming they were deliberately targeted by Azerbaijani forces.
Khanijan and the Armenian church leaders in the U.S. renewed their call for President Joe Biden not to waive Section 907 in a letter last month, anticipating that Biden will decide soon whether to waive it again.
“As you know, Armenia, the world’s first Christian nation, is today a landlocked, blockaded, genocide survivor state, striving to survive on the frontiers of global freedom,” the letter to Biden said. “The United States should stand in solidarity with Armenia in every way, and that must begin by ending any and all U.S. military aid to a nation that would erase our ancient nation from the map of the world. We must never, as Americans, be complicit in such genocidal violence.”
The letter was signed by Bishop Mikael Mouradian of the Armenian Catholic Eparchy of Our Lady of Nareg in the U.S. and Canada, Archbishop Hovnan Derderian of the Western Diocese of the Armenian Church, Bishop Daniel Findikian of the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church, Archbishop Anoushavan Tanielian of the Eastern Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Bishop Torkom Donoyan of the Western Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Rev. Hendrik Shahnazarian, minister of the Armenian Evangelical Union; and Khanijan.
Just last week, Khanijan heard from colleagues in Armenia who reported that villagers in Artsakh were fired upon by Azerbaijani forces, part of the “daily harassment of the peaceful indigenous population in Artsakh living in their land for thousands of years.”
Khanijan said if the Biden administration were to cease waiving Section 907 it would send “a powerful message” to Azerbaijan that would go a long way towards ending the frequent persecution of Armenian Christians.
Last November, Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, filed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would end the Section 907 exemption waiver. The amendment hasn’t yet been voted on.
“As the regime in Baku [the Azerbaijan capital], with Turkey’s support, continues choosing a path of violence instead of a peaceful, negotiated process between Armenia and Azerbaijan, it is long past time for this and all future administrations to halt this type of assistance and fully respect Section 907 of the FREEDOM Support Act,” Menendez said of his amendment.
If nothing happens and the waiver of Section 907 continues, Khanijan simply said it would be “bad” for the Armenian Christians.
“It’s 14 months after the October 2020 war when Turkey and Azerbaijan attacked Karabakh and what are we seeing? We’re seeing more and more destruction of Christian Armenian heritage,” Khanijan said.