A Baptist church was damaged by recent shelling in the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan. The incident on Thursday (Oct. 8) adds to difficulties for the small Baptist community in the region.
Damage Thursday from shelling to another church, the Holy Savior Cathedral (also known as the Ghazanchetsots Cathedral) in Shusha, sparked international headlines. However, on the same day that shelling damaged the large 19th century cathedral that’s part of the Armenian Apostolic Church, a smaller Baptist building in nearby Stepanakert was also hit but didn’t gain media attention.
The Nagorno-Karabakh area, also known as Artsakh, is mostly inhabited by ethnic Armenians but placed under the jurisdiction of Soviet Azerbaijan by Joseph Stalin. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the dispute turned into a military conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan that left between 19,000 and 38,000 people dead over six years until a 1994 ceasefire.
While the region remains in the internally-recognized borders of Azerbaijan, it has been ruled by Armenia separatists since the conflict, who call it the Republic of Artsakh. The largest city and de facto capital is Stepanakert.
After various border clashes in July and September that left nearly two dozen people dead, more significant conflict erupted on Sept. 27. Azerbaijan shelled Stepanakert and other cities for several days in early October, and Armenia attacked Azerbaijani forces. Although Azerbaijan denies striking the Holy Savior Cathedral, Armenia insists they did.
Both sides agreed to start a ceasefire on Saturday (Oct. 10), though some violence has continued. Hundreds — and perhaps thousands — of people have died in the conflict.
Tony Peck, general secretary of the European Baptist Federation that includes Baptist churches across Europe, the Middle East, and Central Asia, offered a public update on an EBF Facebook group. Baptists in Armenia and Azerbaijan are both part of EBF, and the general secretary of the Armenian Baptist body served as EBF president in 2015-2016.
“We continue to monitor and pray concerning the conflict in Ngorno-Karabakh/Artsakh. Please join us in this,” Peck wrote on Oct. 9. “Now we learn with great sadness that yesterday our Armenian Baptist church building was bombed in the main city of Stepanakert. At the same time the central cathedral of The Armenian Apostolic Church in city of Shushi was also badly damaged.”
“Let us pray for a de-escalation of this conflict by all countries involved, and the peaceful way forward that has eluded this region for so long,” Peck added. “And we pray especially for our brothers and sisters in Christ in the four Baptist churches there.”
Peck told Word&Way that the Stepanakert Baptist pastor had initially been unable to enter the building to check on it due to the bombing.
“Our stance as EBF is to stand with those who are suffering and call for a commitment to peace by all concerned,” Peck added.
In addition to military conflict, Baptists in the region also sometimes face persecution. Baptists in Azerbaijan have received large fines for meeting without state recognition and for distributing unauthorized religious materials. And Baptists in Nagorno-Karabakh, including in Stepanakert, have also faced raids and seen literature seized for not registering with the government.
According to the EBF, the Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists of Azerbaijan includes 22 churches with about 3,000 members. The nearby Union of Evangelical Christian Baptist Churches of Armenia includes 155 churches with nearly 5,000 members.