The brief war in Nagorno Karabakh in early April resulted not only in the mobilization of the military, but also the clergy, which became evident already on the third day of the hostilities when His Holiness Karekin II, the Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians, conducted an unprecedented prayer at the St. Gregory the Illuminator Church in Yerevan – for the Homeland and the soldiers defending it.
Several days later, Karekin II and Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia Aram I paid a visit to Karabakh that admittedly provided a major moral and spiritual boost to the soldiers and civilians in the second Armenian republic.
Within hours after Azerbaijan launched a major offensive against Karabakh on April 2, the army’s chaplains were already at the positions – with the Holy Bible in one hand and a weapon in the other. Along with prayers, they helped the soldiers, reinforced the positions, digging trenches, helped carry artillery shells.
“On April 2, I was where I was supposed to be, in the place of my service, in Yerevan. Learning about the escalation and the offensive against Artsakh in the southern and northern directions, I decided to leave to the frontline the next day. On April 3, I was already in the forefront. I was met by our Spiritual Father, got acquainted with the situation, and then I went on to the command post,” the spiritual leader of the Armed Forces, Bishop Vrtanes Abrahamyan told ArmeniaNow.
The holy father is a native of the Martuni district of Karabakh and himself felt the horrors of war still during the first Karabakh war in 1992-1994.
“On the first day there I went to the north and the south. The situation in both directions was almost the same, it was tense. These positions were familiar to me, I was there quite often. There we saw the soldiers’ fighting spirit, which emphasizes the high human qualities of an officer and a soldier. There was no fear. Of course, the war imparts a negative signal to the nervous system, to your mind, heart and soul. The irreparable losses are painful,” the priest said.
According to Bishop Vrtanes, in the northern section of the line of contact the situation was somewhat different, as populated areas were immediate targets of the adversary.
“Civilians along with the military were also involved in military operations. People there were also in control of the situation and were able to find the most optimal way to throw the enemy back and show that the Armenian military defend their land and sacred homeland,” said the bishop, adding that in both directions he met priests, dedicated to their mission, who sometimes to avoid becoming a target of the enemy changed their clergy robe into camouflage and helped the soldiers.
The clergy’s being next to soldiers is not new in Armenian history. Still during the Battle of Avarayr in 451 AD, when the entire Armenian people rose to their feet for the sake of their faith and their Homeland, and confronted a formidable Persian force, priests were in the front rows and distinguished themselves with courage and valor.
In the early 20th century, Armenian clergymen also had a small battalion fighting in the Sardarapat battle. And during World War II it was through the efforts of Catholicos of All Armenians Gevorg VI and the Church that David of Sasoun and David Bek tank columns were formed and sent to the front to fight invading Nazi forces.
On November 13, 1997, His Holiness Karekin I and Defense Minister Vazgen Sargsyan, in a joint initiative, established the Armenian Church’s spiritual leadership of the Armed Forces. The main objectives of the leadership that today has more than 50 spiritual servants is to help army personnel communicate with the Bible, the gospel and principles of the Christian faith, to educate them with Christian moral principles and in a national-patriotic spirit.
During the tense April days, however, apart from the Armed Forces spiritual servants, also a large number of priests volunteered to be next to the servicemen in Artsakh.
“This was a spiritual unity of the army that is the guarantor of the security of our Homeland. All our servants, even from abroad, have been calling me and offering their help – physically, spiritually, materially. This was an unprecedented wave of unity, which gave its results, a unity of the nation, state, church was once again emphasized, it was shown that the Brotherhood is not just a praying mass, but a living organism represented by the patriarch,” said the priest.
It is noteworthy that during the April escalation in Karabakh many servicemen had the desire to get baptized.
“It was the first time we baptized servicemen at the positions, under pouring rain, because those guys had a desire to become Christians as soon as possible. Such ceremonies also took place during the first war, but now in the regular army, more than two dozen servicemen expressed a desire to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ in conditions of artillery shelling and downpour,” said the Holy Father, once again reminding, however, that the conflict in Karabakh has never been religious for Armenians.
“We have never turned this struggle into a religious one, because this is a liberation struggle, a struggle for us to become masters of our own land, a fight for the right of our people to free expression of their will,” said the Armed Forces’ spiritual leader.
“We are in constant prayer to the Lord to once again make sure that justice prevails one day. What has been given to Armenians by God’s will is going to be recovered.”