The Holy See is called to maintain a tricky balance in the Caucasus. In particular, after the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh and the painful peace for the Armenians, there are concerns that the region’s Christian heritage is at risk.
Nagorno-Karabakh was merged with Azerbaijan during the Soviet period and then declared independence from Baku when Azerbaijan itself broke away from the Soviet Union. The 2020 conflict brought a territory previously controlled by Armenians back under Azerbaijani control, sparking concern for its cultural heritage.
The European Parliament recently passed a resolution condemning “the destruction of cultural heritage in Nagorno-Karabakh,” while in December, the International Court of Justice said that Azerbaijan should “take all necessary measures to prevent and punish acts of vandalism and desecration affecting Armenian cultural heritage.”
The Azeris also complain that the Armenians in the region have destroyed their cultural heritage. The Holy See therefore finds itself in a problematic situation as it has good relations with both Armenia and Azerbaijan. For example, the Holy See and Azerbaijan signed an agreement to restore and conserve the Santa Priscilla catacombs in Rome. Azerbaijan has financed several restoration works through a foundation chaired by the wife of its President Ilham Aliyev.
The Holy See finds itself in the difficult position of remaining balanced without ruining relations. To maintain a balance, Parolin explained, “we always refer to the principles that should guide international relations.”
Concerning Nagorno Karabakh, he said, “the Holy See supported the proposal of a commission of experts from UNESCO, to be sent to the site with an exploratory mandate to verify because there are mutual accusations of putting its historical and cultural heritage at risk.”
“The Holy See had also offered the availability to participate with an expert. So far, however, it has not been possible. This also indicates the tensions that continue to exist, so much so that no initiative, not even of third parties, can be created to help the parties get closer.”
The Secretary of State also addressed the issue of religious buildings at risk in Europe, where there are more and more attacks on places of worship. For example, a French government report released in February showed that in 2021, there were 1,659 anti-religious acts in France, of which 857 were anti-Christian acts.
Parolin said: “It is, unfortunately, a very common phenomenon in France, and it is still not clear what the causes of the fire of Notre-Dame were. The number of attacks indicates that religious intolerance is growing despite all efforts to respect each other.”
“I see this commitment to respect at high levels. For example, I was able to breathe it during my trip to Dubai for the day of the Holy See at the Expo. But, on the other hand, we cannot neglect the issue of radicalization due to many different factors.”
Finally, Parolin touched on Africa. Pope Francis will visit the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan on July 2-7. The pope has devoted considerable attention to South Sudan, the world’s newest country, summoning its leaders to a spiritual retreat at the Vatican in 2019.
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Meanwhile, the Holy See established a nunciature in South Sudan in June 2019. The nuncio to South Sudan is traditionally the nuncio to Nairobi, Kenya, where he also represents the Holy See at the United Nations office in Africa. The establishment of a residential nunciature, with a chargé d’affaires who takes care of relations, is a sign of particular diplomatic attention by the Holy See.
But Parolin said that there was no talk of the appointment of a nuncio only for South Sudan. “This is not an issue we are studying at the moment. Nor has the question been raised in view of the pope’s trip,” he explained.
Pope Francis has wanted to visit South Sudan for many years, but the spiritual retreat in 2019 did not immediately create the conditions for a visit. Finally, Archbishop Gallagher visited the country in December 2021, paving the way for the announcement of the papal trip.
Parolin recalled that Pope Francis “had wanted a spiritual retreat, with the idea of giving new life to the ongoing negotiations and giving a spiritual tone to the dialogue.”
“Ours is a diplomacy of speech and persuasion. It works if it is listened to,” he commented.
It is indeed a limitation, which is also seen in the Ukraine war, where the prevailing narrative cannot hide the fact that the Ukrainians are fighting alone.