By Elise Ann Allen
ROME (Crux) — This past week the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, quietly led his own “peace mission” to the Caucasus nations of Armenia and Azerbaijan, which have long been engaged in violent conflict, to promote peace talks.
In contrast with the Vatican’s other, higher-profile peace mission this summer, the visit of Italian Cardinal Matteo Zuppi of Bologna to both Russia and Ukraine, Cardinal Parolin’s visit was not announced by the Vatican beforehand, nor did it receive much of an international or media spotlight.
However, Cardinal Parolin’s visit was celebrated by civil and ecclesial leaders in each country and hailed as an important step not only in strengthening bilateral relations but in facilitating dialogue.
Conflict between the majority Christian Armenia and the majority Muslim Azerbaijan dates back to the early 20th century, with the present conflict rooted in the late 1980s. Fighting is focused on the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh territory, which though located within Azerbaijan is populated by ethnic Armenians.
In late 2020, an escalation of violence now dubbed as the “Second Nagorno-Karabakh War” erupted, resulting in thousands of casualties. The deadliest clashes took place last September, when hundreds of soldiers were killed.
A loose ceasefire was struck, with Azerbaijan claiming victory. However, intermittent violence has continued, and Azerbaijan has been accused of making numerous incursions into Armenian territory and of blocking the Lachin corridor, the lone road allowing Armenia access to Nagorno-Karabakh.
That blockade, which human rights activists have warned could cause a new humanitarian crisis, remains in place, and numerous calls have been made by the international community, including the European Parliament, the United States, and France, for Azerbaijan to withdraw troops from Armenian territory.
Pope Francis visited the Caucasus nations of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan in 2016, traveling first to Armenia and a few months later visiting Georgia and Azerbaijan. He initially intended to visit all three at once, but tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan made it impossible for him to include both as part of the same trip.
Cardinal Parolin’s visit to Armenia and Azerbaijan this week is a further advancement of Pope Francis’s agenda in the region, and a continuation of his push to promote peace among the warring nations.
Cardinal Parolin first visited Azerbaijan, where he held meetings with several top government officials, including a conversation with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev on July 10.
According to a statement from the president’s office, Aliyev thanked Cardinal Parolin for his visit, as well as Pope Francis’s visit in 2016, and he voiced hope that Cardinal Parolin’s visit would help to expand bilateral relations.
Cardinal Parolin for his part thanked Aliyev for his hospitality and for the good treatment of the country’s small Catholic population.
During the conversation, the two men discussed ongoing cooperation between Azerbaijan and the Holy See, as well as the success of joint projects, including the opening of an Azerbaijani embassy to the Holy See in 2021, and an agreement signed that year between the Vatican and the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, a charitable entity spearheaded by Azerbaijan’s First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva, to restore the Catacombs of Commodilla in Rome.
Aliyev previously visited the Vatican in 2020, the year that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict escalated.
Cardinal Parolin also met Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov, with whom he discussed regional tensions and the ongoing pursuit of peace.
Azerbaijan State News Agency reports that Bayramov spoke about the so-called “44-day Patriotic War” in the Nagorno-Karabakh area and condemned “the crimes, vandalism and destroyed cultural and religious heritage” in Azerbaijan territory. Bayramov also warned Cardinal Parolin about mine threats and other “provocations” by Armenia.
The two reportedly also exchanged views on various regional and international issues.
Cardinal Parolin also visited the Heyder Aliyev Center and on Monday, July 10, met with Sheikh Allahshukur Pashazadeh, Grand Mufti of the Caucasus.
According to local media, Pashazadeh defended Azerbaijan against accusations of destroying Armenian heritage and insisted that Azerbaijan has suffered various forms of vandalism, while also praising the country’s religious and cultural diversity.
Both the European Parliament and the United Nations cultural agency UNESCO have raised concerns over the destruction of historic Christian sites in Nagorno-Karabakh.
“Ethnic and religious diversity is the national wealth of the multicultural Azerbaijan state,” Pashazadeh said, saying that in the wake of the 2020 war, “the whole world sees the traces of Armenian vandalism.”
He insisted that Azerbaijan is “restoring and rebuilding our religious and spiritual heritage” that was damaged during the war, and he accused Armenians of conducting “slander campaigns.”
During his visit, Cardinal Parolin also visited the grave of Heydar Aliyev, Azerbaijan’s president from 1993 to 2003, which is located in the Alley of Honor, a burial site for distinguished Azerbaijanis in the capital city of Baku.
Parolin arrived in Yerevan for a two-day visit to Armenia July 11, celebrating Mass the next morning inside the chapel of the apostolic nunciature.
Afterward, he paid a visit to Tsitsernakaberd, the national memorial for victims of the Armenian genocide, where he laid a wreath, reiterating the Vatican’s recognition of the systematic elimination of the Armenian community in the Ottoman Empire from 1915-1917.
Pope Francis has repeatedly called this extermination a “genocide,” and he caused a brief diplomatic row with Turkey after referring to it as such during his 2016 visit to Armenia. Turkey briefly recalled its ambassador to the Holy See as a result.
On July 12, Cardinal Parolin met Armenian President Vahagn Khachaturyan at the presidential palace.
According to a statement from the president’s office, Khachaturyan voiced appreciation for Cardinal Parolin’s visit and said the pope’s closeness and blessings at such a difficult moment for Armenia is appreciated.
“We also highly appreciate the relations between the Holy See and Armenia, which have a long history and are developing upward. These relations are based on such values as Christian values, peace, justice, human rights,” he said, insisting that “We are committed to achieving peace, and we are on that path.”
Khachaturyan thanked the Holy See for its commitment to peace efforts in the region, saying high-level meetings are important for deepening relations and strengthening dialogue.
In his speech, Cardinal Parolin thanked Armenia for its hospitality and said it was an honor to visit the country and to commemorate victims of the Armenian genocide.
At the Tsitsernakaberd memorial, “I was able to deepen (of course, I was well aware beforehand) the historical information related to the tragedy that befell the Armenian people,” Cardinal Parolin said, and also voiced hope that the many mutual visits of Armenian and Holy See officials would further bolster their good relations.
During the meeting, reference was also made to Azerbaijan’s blockage of the Lachin Corridor, with Khachaturyan, according to a statement from his office, saying the isolation of the Armenians in the area has caused a humanitarian crisis with the blockage of gas, electricity and telecommunications.
Cardinal Parolin stressed the need to ensure peace and stability in the region, and to create an atmosphere of trust on all sides.
Both parties insisted on the importance of continued negotiations and to ensure the protection of the rights of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Following his meeting with Khachaturyan, Cardinal Parolin met with Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who in his remarks, according to a statement from his office, thanked Cardinal Parolin for his visit and recalled the visit of both Pope Francis in 2016, and of John Paul II in 2001.
Cardinal Parolin’s visit, he said, “indicates a new charge” in relations between Armenia and the Holy See.
In his speech, Cardinal Parolin voiced gratitude for his welcome and for having the opportunity to “have a dialogue and exchange ideas with you,” saying the visit would “definitely” strengthen relations, and pointed to the recent appointment of a Vatican envoy to Armenia.
During their private conversation, according to Armenian news site Armenpress, the two discussed bilateral relations and issues of regional importance, specifically the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the blockage of the Lachin Corridor, as well as ongoing peace talks.
Cardinal Parolin expressed the Holy See’s readiness to assist in achieving a lasting peace and stability in the region, as well as in the resolution of humanitarian issues.
On July 13, Cardinal Parolin met with Karekin II, the Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians at the Holy Etchmiadzin Mother See.
According to the patriarchate’s website, Karekin stressed the importance of Cardinal Parolin’s visit and voiced gratitude for the efforts being made “to overcome the challenges facing Armenia and Artsakh.”
Karekin referred to the blockade of the Lachin Corridor “and the created humanitarian disaster,” as well as Armenia’s security concerns. He also highlighted “the practical intervention of the international community to stop Azerbaijan’s expansionist ambitions, offensive actions and protect the right of Artsakh Armenians to self-determination.”
Cardinal Parolin conveyed Pope Francis’s greetings and insisted that opening a permanent diplomatic representation of the Holy See in Yerevan would further strengthen bilateral relations.
He insisted that his visit was of a “humanitarian nature” and was intended “to contribute to the peaceful settlement of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan.”
Cardinal Parolin said the peace process is complicated due to various obstacles, and he lamented that a lasting peace has not yet been achieved.
Karekin closed by thanking Cardinal Parolin for his visit and for the Holy See’s support “during this difficult period,” and conveyed his own greetings to Pope Francis.
As part of this trip, Parolin also celebrated Mass at the Holy Martyrs Cathedral in Gyumri, Armenia, where he also met with individuals and families impacted by the Nagorno-Karabakh war in 2020.
So far the Vatican has issued no statement on Cardinal Parolin’s visit to Armenia and Azerbaijan, nor has the Vatican’s state-run information platform, Vatican News, covered the trip.