The 44-day war of 2020 and its disastrous consequences for Armenia have highlighted the vulnerabilities of the Armenian state. Its army is not equipped to handle the possibility of another high-intensity war with Azerbaijan, which is supported by Turkey. In the West, sympathy has grown for this Christian people and their fight for survival, particularly among right-wing and far-right European circles.
Conservative opinion-makers, traumatized by the persecution of Yezidi and Christian populations by ISIS, have integrated the Armenian tragedy into the broader tragedy of Near Eastern Christians. Upon closer examination, semantic changes have occurred. In the past, we simply referred to “the Armenians” or the “Armenian cause” in a predominantly humanistic approach. However, the terms “Armenian Christians” or “Christians of Artsakh” are increasingly used. Therefore, the Armenians of one of the world’s oldest churches and of the first state to embrace Christianity have come to realize that they are Christians of the East.
At a time of renewed interest in Near Eastern Christians and other persecuted minorities in the Middle East, the question arises of how to approach their cause politically. Is it solely a religious and denominational issue? Or, from a secular standpoint, is it a cause that pertains primarily to the defense of human dignity and, more generally, human rights? Admittedly, the current alarming political and security situation in Armenia does not allow the leaders of this landlocked state the luxury of addressing the question of Near Eastern Christians in all their complexity and diversity. But upon closer examination, Armenia’s investment is of the utmost importance and relevance. This is due, firstly, to the fact that the issue concerns Armenia both internally and externally.
Armenia, as a survivor of the 1915 genocide, faces existential security challenges and is caught in the stranglehold of Turkish-Azerbaijani Pan-Turkism. It also has a unique characteristic in comparison to its sister Churches of the Christian Near East (Syriac, Assyro-Chaldean, etc.), in that it is the only people who can still rely on a state that is a member of the international system.
Armenia is home to one of the world’s largest Yezidi communities, numbering around 45,000 people. They live in harmony with the rest of the population and enjoy extensive political and cultural rights. The most senior lawmaker who chaired the first session of the 7th convocation of the National Assembly was himself a Yezidi, and textbooks in the Yezidi language (the Yezidis of Armenia do not want their language to be equated with Kurmandji) are published in Armenia. Programs in their mother tongue are broadcast on Armenian public radio. A much smaller community from northern Iran, the Assyrians, settled in Armenia in the early 19th century.
Armenians have been part of the Middle East since the conquests of King Tigran the Great in the first century BC, or at most since the creation of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem in 638. The Armenian Catholicosate of the Great House of Cilicia was established in Antelias, Lebanon, in 1930. This Catholicosate plays an extremely active role in Islamic-Christian dialogue, ecumenism, and rapprochement between the Churches of the Near East and the Churches of the West.
Francophonie as a Strategic Tool
Armenia has been a permanent member of the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (OIF) since 2008. Despite having a modest budget (around 80 million euros), the OIF is flexible enough to establish relations and partnerships with countries that share common interests. Egypt and Lebanon are two such countries, as they have deep historical, political, cultural and social ties with the Armenians.
One of the values promoted by the OIF is cultural exception, which advocates for the promotion of otherness without harming the majority cultural element. This is done in the name of defending an ecosystem, which is currently endangered. The genocidal process started against the Armenian and Assyro-Chaldean civilizations in the late 19th century, and continues today in Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) and north-eastern Syria against the Syriac and Assyro-Chaldean populations.
Considering the crucial importance of the subject and the significance of these populations in terms of their civilizational legacy and tangible and intangible heritage, there is a strong reason to believe that the concept of cultural exception is gaining prominence. In this respect, the French-speaking world, which serves as a tool and platform for dialogue between Eastern and Western civilizations, would be better equipped to amplify the voices of threatened minorities. Additionally, it would provide security for the Republic of Armenia, the heir to the memory of the victims of the 1915 genocide. But who would have an interest in involving the French-speaking world in this struggle?
First and foremost, Armenia, is struggling to deploy an advocacy strategy to defend Artsakh in multilateral forums outside of its narrative, which is based on the imminence of genocide. In Lebanon, the proportion of Christians and Druze is inexorably declining in the face of the Muslim majority. Yet, maintaining such a population is vital to the balance of the Cedar country, as it acts as a buffer between the Sunnis and the Shiites. Secondly, Egypt’s large indigenous Coptic Christian population is an asset for its image as a balanced power that it is trying to project on the international stage.
Promoting Proactive Cultural Diplomacy
Armenia and Lebanon, and the autonomous Kurdistan region of Iraq have many players and institutions capable of protecting minorities in the Near East. But without the logistical, human, political, and diplomatic support of France, they could not be heard or be effective. France has a long tradition of protecting minorities in the Levant. L’Oeuvre d’Orient, established in 1856, operates in almost every country in the region and is highly regarded for its aid programs for Christian school networks, which promote the “vivre ensemble” (living together) that is a primary value in the French-speaking world, as well as secularism. Additionally, the Mesopotamia Heritage Association catalogs Iraq’s non-Muslim heritage under the leadership of its project manager Pascal Maguesyan, an active member of the Franco-Armenian NGO Terre et Culture , which works to protect Armenian heritage in Syria, Turkey and Iran.
The project is likely to receive contributions from various partners, including the Institut National du Patrimoine, a French public institution headed by Charles Personnaz, who is a knowledgeable about Near Eastern Christians and Armenia; the Aliph Foundation, which focuses on protecting heritage in war zones; l’Oeuvre d’Orient, which is increasingly concerned with the plight of Armenians of Artsakh and the preservation of their heritage; and UNESCO.
For its part, Armenia sees itself as a crossroads of influences and a platform for dialogue to serve international scientific cooperation. The Matenadaran, which houses the majority of the world’s medieval Armenian manuscripts and includes a collection of Syriac manuscripts, collaborates with researchers in Iraqi Kurdistan for heritage preservation. It is also an ideal venue for an international conference under the aegis of La Francophonie on the protection of minorities in the Near East. The goal is to raise awareness and take action for the common good, not from the perspective of a clash of civilizations, but to raise public awareness of the richness of a heritage rooted in the universal.
Such a discourse would be useful in countering the representation of Armenia as a sentinel of Christianity besieged by destructive barbarism. While the Turkish-Azerbaijani variant of Pan-Turkism regards Armenia as an incongruity, the Arab and Persian-speaking world views Armenia with sympathy. Therefore, it is important not to turn our back on these regions. Let us not forget the role of the Islamic Republic of Iran in promoting Armenian heritage in the north of the country, such as the restoration of the monasteries of Saint Thaddeus and Saint Stepanos.
By promoting both the past and present, French-speaking Armenian researchers and diplomats can kill three birds with one stone. Firstly, they can put Armenia on the map of the Francophonie, adding an Armenian touch to the concept of cultural exception. Secondly, they can strengthen synergies with the Arab countries that are members of the Francophonie, as well as their cultural institutions that are sensitive to this issue (such as Saint Joseph University in Beirut, the Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Maronite, and Cilician Armenian patriarchates). Finally, they can leverage the OIF and its media influence (including the Courrier d’Erevan) to develop a new narrative centered on promoting human dignity and living together.
This soft power, linked to the idea of a bridge-building people, a people of ferrymen and champions of ecumenism, is represented by catholicos and saint of the Armenian Church, Nerses Shnorhali, whose jubilee it was this year. Armenians are also known as builders –– a representation that perfectly resonates with how the Near East sees Armenians. This can be the basis of the idea of holding a conference under the impetus of the OIF, as well as the French, Armenian, and Lebanese Ministries of Culture, to bring together Armenian, Lebanese and European researchers to discuss ways of strengthening the defense of the heritage of Artsakh, Armenia, Anatolia, Mesopotamia and the Levant.
This cultural diplomacy, which embodies the values of the French-speaking world and resonates with the existential challenges facing Armenians and Near Eastern Christians, is not one-sided. It also serves the interests of France and the member countries of the OIF in promoting cultural exceptionalism and living together.
International conferences and concrete protection mechanisms offer hope and a new perspective to this bleak picture that dramatic current events have made us accustomed to.
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