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Freedom of belief
3 min read

A tale of two Septembers

The recent conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh is already a twice forgotten war. Forced to flee twice, Anush Petrosyan describes the experience.

Anush Petrosyan is a writer now based in Armenia. She is originally from Nagorno-Karabakh.

A sunset dramatically silhouette's a ruined tower and people at its base.
A September 2023 sunset over Stepanakert.

The ethnic cleansing of 100,000 Christian Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh has left Armenians around the world questioning the world order that allows dictators to have their way without impunity.  

 Following Azerbaijan’s brutal war of September 2020, the people of Karabakh were subjected to a complete blockade of their region – an exclave of Armenia in Azerbaijan. In the small stretch of land where Armenians had fought for independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union, civilians were being kidnapped, the elderly were dying for lack of basic healthcare, and schools were closing due to no heating gas. To the outside world, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev was speaking of peace and integration. Inside the region, experts were warning of genocide by starvation.  

In September 2023, Azerbaijan at last got what it wanted - the territory of Karabakh without Armenians. After an attack that left hundreds of people dead, Azerbaijani forces moved into the region as people began to flee to Armenia, forever leaving their homes and homeland.  

This is the story of Anush Petrosyan. A native of Shushi, Karabakh, which Azerbaijan took control of in 2020. Since then, Anush had been living in the Armenian-controlled Karabakh capital of Stepanakert, which she was forced to evacuate during the ethnic cleansing.  

In September 2020, I left my birthplace in Shushi, Artsakh (Nagorno Karabakh) with a strong conviction that I would be back soon. 

In September 2023, I left Stepanakert, my new hometown, with only the hope of staying alive. 

 

In September 2020, I had a father. He drove us to Yerevan in our own car. 

In September 2023, I no longer had a father… A kind person from Martakert, Artsakh, who I had not met before, agreed to evacuate my mother and me to Yerevan in his car. 

 

In September 2020, I left Shushi when there were still some people in the city. 

In September 2023, I was among the last to leave Stepanakert. The hotel where we had been living as refugees from Shushi for the last three years was empty. I had never seen the streets of Stepanakert look so desperate. There were stray dogs roaming, and those without cars and were waiting for public buses to come and evacuate them. 

 

In 2020, we left behind the harvest of my father's garden in Shushi, and an abundant life. 

In 2023, we left a few kilos of buckwheat, rice, and potatoes in our hotel room in Stepanakert. Food we had managed to get a hold of during a nearly year-long brutal blockade. 
 

In 2020, I left Shushi with dreams in my heart. I had not been broken yet, I had no personal loss, and I was confident I’d be back. 

In September 2023, I left Stepanakert with a sense of uncertainty about my life and my future. I had lost a homeland, my father, and I was lost in my own life. 

 

I have written much about Shushi since the September 2020 Artsakh War. I left a whole life and a garden of violets there. 

But I haven't written a single line about Stepanakert since the violence and ethnic cleansing of September 2023. Maybe one day I will write about this cozy city and its beautiful stadium where I would jog and regain a sense of peace. 

 

In September 2020, for the first time in my life, I felt how alone and powerless a person can be.  

In September 2023, for the second time in my life I felt how alone and powerless a person can be. 

 

In September 2020, I started to realize that in any hopeless situation a person should put their hope only in themselves and God. 

In September 2023, I became convinced that in any hopeless situation a person should put his hope only in themselves and God.  
 

I went through hell twice, or through different stages of hell.  It is difficult to say which hell was worse.... I am only afraid to imagine that there are people whose hell has been more hellish than mine. 

 

But in the midst of hell, I came across the most compassionate people, who made me feel God’s presence in this absurd world of ours. 

Voices of Artsakh is a new series developed in collaboration with The Armenia Project, an educational non-profit in Armenia, that features the stories of the refugees who were forced to flee Nagorno-Karabakh (also known as Artsakh). These personal essays will focus on their experiences, and life after Artsakh as they try to rebuild new homes following the ethnic cleansing from their historic lands.

Explainer
Creed
Freedom of belief
4 min read

Why should society care about the persecution of Christians?

Believers revere martyrs, but others are also inspired by sacrifice.

Ryan Gilfeather explores social issues through the lens of philosophy, theology, and history. He is a Research Associate at the Joseph Centre for Dignified Work.

A stone monument within which set, in the shape of a cross are statues of numerous standing praying figures.
Martyrs monument, Nagasaki, Japan.

The story of Christian martyrdom began with the death of St Stephen. On the 26th December 36 AD, Stephen the Deacon proclaimed the Christian faith before the rabbinic court in Jerusalem. His apology enraged the crowd before him. They dragged him outside of the city gates and stoned him until he perished. Looked at from one angle, all we see is chaos, fear and violence. Viewed from another perspective, however, we see remarkable courage and love for God. Stephen’s love for God so consumed his heart and mind, that he preferred to die violently than turn against Him. He became the first Christian martyr, a term which means ‘witness’ in the original Greek, because he would rather testify to his belief in Christ than live. We also use this term because his death says something about the character of God. Those who follow Christ take on his virtues. Stephen’s death showed how he possessed God’s virtues of courage and love more than the average believer.  

More stories of martyrdom emerged from the first three centuries after the death of Christ. A number of sources have told of the harrowing death of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste. Each presented it differently. Basil of Caesarea recounted how the Roman emperor enacted a law, making it illegal to confess faith in Christ. As an imperial official was posting up the law in a public place and demanding obedience, forty soldiers stood up and declared, ‘I am a Christian.’ The official promised them riches and high office to deny their belief in Christ. But they did not relent. He threatened violence and they remained steadfast. They said that because of their love for God they would readily accept torture on the wheel, by screws, and being burned alive. In response the official exposed them to the cold, where they stood until they froze to death. In this story, these same two perspectives emerge. One reveals violent death at the hands of a state scared of the consequences of people refusing to sacrifice to the pagan gods. The other speaks of people full of love for God, and the courage and integrity to refuse to turn their backs on Him.  

The martyrs show us that the virtues we need so often grow out of suffering and struggle.

Stories about martyrdom punctuated the worshipping life of the Early Church. Each year as the anniversary of a martyr’s death rolled around, crowds would gather at their tombs. Singing hymns, they held a candlelit vigil all night. In the morning the crowds processed into the tomb, where the bishop celebrated the eucharist and gave a speech commemorating their violent deaths. By the fourth century, each region celebrated dozens of different martyr festivals. These were joyful and ecstatic occasions. Early Christians treasured the opportunity to honour the martyr’s memory through commemoration. 

They also invested these stories with great spiritual potential. The martyrs were seen to be guides in the path of holiness. The deaths of St Stephen and the Forty Matyrs of Sebaste revealed how to express one’s love for God: to treasure Him so much in one’s heart, that nothing is worth denying one’s belief and trust in Him. Additionally, early Christian writers began to articulate that these stories also inspire and embolden their audiences to imitate the martyrs. Until the early fourth century, when Christianity became legally tolerated, some Christians faced the choice of denying Christ or death. For these Christians, the stories of the martyrs showed them that the Christian life involved proclaiming their faith and facing death, and crucially it gave them the inner strength to follow it through. After Christianity was made legal, Christians still saw the martyrs as spiritual guides. They revealed how to express courage and love for God in the face of hardship. These stories ignited a fire of zeal to imitate the martyrs in some way.   

They are, I propose, also of great inspiration to those who do not think of themselves as Christians.  The martyrs reveal to us how a love for God generates virtues we prize so greatly in society, namely courage, integrity, and faithfulness. If it were not for love for God, Stephen and the other martyrs would not have chosen to suffer, and they wouldn’t have expressed these precious qualities. In short, they give insight into how Christians understand love for God to be the wellspring for those precious virtues. The martyrs show us that the virtues we need so often grow out of suffering and struggle. In a sense, they reveal the value of suffering for virtue. However, they do not encourage us to suffer for its own sake. Rather, they reveal that the full expression of love for God can so often involve suffering and struggle. When Christians faithfully say yes to this hardship out of love for God, it transforms them into the embodiments of these precious virtues, which perhaps we need more than ever today, in an age where comfort and ease seems the goal of life.