A papal envoy traveled to Armenia last week to speak with civil and Christian leaders in the aftermath of the country’s 44-day war with Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.

Archbishop José Bettencourt, the papal nuncio to Georgia and Armenia, who is based in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, visited Armenia Dec. 5-9.

Upon his return, the nuncio expressed concern that much remains unresolved a month after the Russian-brokered ceasefire negotiations and appealed for the preservation of Nagorno-Karabakh’s Christian cultural heritage.

“The ‘ceasefire’ signed on Nov. 10 is only the beginning for a peace agreement, which turns out to be difficult and precarious for all that remains unresolved on the ground of negotiations. The international community is certainly called to play a leading role,” Bettencourt said in an interview with ACI Stampa, CNA’s Italian-language news partner.

The nuncio pointed to the role of the “Minsk Group” of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) -- a group that is led by representatives from the United States, France and Russia -- as critical to mediating “compromises to lower the tension” through diplomatic means.

During his trip to Armenia, the papal diplomat met with Armenian President Armen Sargsyan for nearly an hour. He also took time to meet refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh, to “convey hope” and the pope’s solidarity.

“After Holy Mass was offered in the Armenian Catholic Cathedral of Gyumri, I had the opportunity to meet some families who had fled from the war regions. I saw on their faces the pain of fathers and mothers who struggle every day to give a future of hope to their children. There were seniors and babies, several generations united by a tragedy,” Bettencourt said.

An estimated 90,000 people fled their homes in the Nagorno-Karabakh region amid the missile and drone strikes during the six-week conflict, according to Armenia’s foreign minister. Since the ceasefire agreed on on Nov. 10, some have returned to their homes, but many more have not.

The papal nuncio visited the Missionaries of Charity who care for some of these refugees in Spitak and visited a Catholic hospital in Ashotsk, northern Armenia.

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“According to Archbishop Minassian, at the moment there are at least 6,000 orphaned children who have lost one of their parents during the conflict. The Catholic community of Gyumri alone and the Armenian Sisters of the Immaculate Conception welcomed a large number of families, guaranteeing them a roof and the necessary for daily life,” he said.

“I have heard from the religious bloody and cruel stories of violence and hatred,” he added.

While in Armenia, Bettencourt met with the patriarch of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Karekin II.

“I met the Patriarch and I immediately felt the suffering of the pastor,” he said. “It is a profound suffering, palpable even in the physical features of the patriarch, which it is difficult for a non-Armenian to fully understand.”

As nuncio to Armenia, Bettencourt said that he used to travel to the country once or twice a month, but he had been unable to visit the country since March due to the closure of the borders between Georgia and Armenia because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“It was a great sacrifice for me not to be able to meet these brothers during the past months, but I was totally unable to,” he said. 

“On the first occasion I had, therefore, I went to Armenia, especially in the aftermath of the end of the armed hostilities, to bring the Holy Father’s greetings and solidarity.”

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Bettencourt’s trip coincided with a visit by Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, a delegate of the Armenian Apostolic Church, to the Vatican, where he met with officials at the Pontifical Council for Culture last week to speak about the preservation of Christian heritage in Artsakh. 

Artsakh is the ancient historical name of the Nagorno-Karabakh territory. The area is recognized by the United Nations as belonging to Azerbaijan, a predominately Muslim country, but is administered by ethnic Armenians, who mostly belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church, one of six autocephalous churches of the Oriental Orthodox communion.

Armenia, which has a population of almost three million, borders Georgia, Azerbaijan, Artsakh, Iran and Turkey. It prides itself on having been the first nation to adopt Christianity as a state religion, in the year 301. The disputed territory has had an Armenian identity for millennia and with that a rich Christian history.

The largely Muslim composition of Azerbaijan and the history of Armenian Christianity is a factor in the conflict. The dispute over the territory has been ongoing since the collapse of the Soviet Union, with a war fought over the region in 1988-1994.

The papal nuncio said that the Holy See was hopeful that all parties involved would do everything possible to preserve and safeguard the “incomparable artistic and cultural heritage” of Nagorno-Karabakh, which belongs “not only to a nation, but to the whole of humanity” and is under the protection of UNESCO, the U.N.’s educational, scientific and cultural agency.

“Beyond the service of charity, the Catholic Church wants above all to convey hope to these peoples. The Holy Father, personally, during the 44 days of conflict raised a heartfelt appeal for peace in the Caucasus four times and invited the universal Church to ask the Lord for the longed-for gift of an end to conflicts,” Bettencourt said.