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This September, the end came for Nagorno-Karabakh. 

The tiny mountain region was once home to 120,000 Armenian Christians governing themselves in a de facto independent republic, the Republic of Artsakh. Armenians have been living in this region for thousands of years, and they have been Christians since the fourth century. The dozens of ancient and medieval churches dotting the landscape bear witness to this history.

But for nine months, the dictatorship of Azerbaijan had been blockading this region. The siege led to a hunger crisis and created dire fuel and medicine shortages. One horrifying indicator of the scale of the suffering: the miscarriage rate in the territory reportedly quadrupled. 

Then, on September 19, Azerbaijan attacked. The military assault drove half of the region’s population out of their homes, and swamped the capital’s hospital with wounded for whom there were no medical supplies. Widespread atrocities were reported, including the apparently deliberate bombing of a group of fleeing children. Five days after the attack began, the Karabakh Armenians accepted Russia’s offer to evacuate their population to the neighboring Republic of Armenia. 

In one fell swoop, one of the world’s most brutal dictatorships destroyed one of the world’s oldest Christian communities. Not only that, but the dictatorship in question receives U.S. military aid and is considered a “valued partner” of the U.S.

How did conservative Christians in the United States—members of the world’s largest, freest, richest, and most influential Christian community—respond to the ethnic cleansing of their coreligionists by a U.S. ally?

With almost complete silence.

Two facts make this shameful non-reaction particularly strange. First, since the 1990s, the U.S. has been home to a robust and vocal movement on behalf of persecuted Christians abroad. This movement has been especially strong among conservative Christians. Second, during the Armenian Genocide of 1915–1923, American Christians mobilized to help the genocide’s victims as never before in history. They raised a phenomenal $100 million for relief, aiding perhaps two million refugees in total. Herbert Hoover would later remark that, “probably Armenia was known to the American school child in 1919 only a little less than England.”

Contrast that with what one of my colleagues in the U.S. told me earlier this year: “Joel, most people in my congregation don’t even know what an Armenian is.”

How do we account for an abdication this massive?

From my perspective as a staff member at Christian Solidarity International, one factor appears salient: the absorption of Christian organizing and political energy into a movement for “international religious freedom.”

Over the past three years, when I have talked about Karabakh with Christians who work in organizations dedicated to helping the persecuted, I have repeatedly gotten versions of this question: “But is this really about religious freedom?”

There is a history to how this question became the overriding determinant for organizations like mine. After the end of the Cold War, a large coalition of Christian and Jewish activists and organizations began working to get the U.S. government to address the persecution of Christians in the Global South.

To do so, these activists chose to frame the problem within the discourse of human rights. They settled on one human right in particular: the right to “religious freedom” enshrined in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Today, we have become used to thinking of religious persecution as, by definition, an attack on religious freedom. Yet the twentieth century’s worst instance of anti-Christian persecution—the Armenian Genocide—did not fit the “religious freedom” category so neatly. The architects of the genocide were not, after all, trying to keep Armenians from worshipping Jesus, building churches, or reading the Bible. Much like Azerbaijan today, they were trying to exterminate a Christian people (whether practicing or not) that they had long held in subservience but had come to see as a threat to their power.

At the time, this fact posed no obstacle at all to American Christians organizing for their suffering coreligionists. Later generations of Christendom would not benefit from this clarity.

The anti-persecution movement achieved its greatest legislative victory in 1998, with the passage of the “International Religious Freedom Act.” Significantly, as the scholar Elizabeth Castelli notes, the final legislation does not use the word “persecution” even once in its definitions of terms. It speaks only of “violations of religious freedom.” These violations might include “forced mass resettlement,” “rape,” “enslavement,” “murder,” and so forth—but only “if committed on account of an individual’s religious belief or practice.”

This framing suits the priorities of the U.S. foreign policy establishment rather well. If persecution is primarily a problem of individual liberty, rather than a question involving ethnic identity, peoples, or even nations and nation-states, then it becomes an issue between governments and their citizens. U.S. diplomats can grade the performance of foreign governments and otherwise address the issue at their leisure, without calling into question broader U.S. foreign policy.

In order to pass key legislation and gain a foothold in the U.S. government, Christian anti-persecution activists accommodated themselves to the government’s preferences. This came at a cost. Soon, the institutions the U.S. and its allies set up to promote religious freedom began to shape the way Christians did advocacy. Eventually, it shaped the very way we thought about persecution.

This category shift has been so debilitating that, as the bombs were falling on Armenian Christians in September 2023, Christianity Today saw fit to publish just one piece about the attack—an article that interviews six “religious freedom experts” about whether or not specifically Christian advocacy for the Armenians would be appropriate.

An urgent task is now before Christian leaders and activists: to free our imaginations from the constraints of “international religious freedom” and its definitions, and to rediscover our biblical calling to solidarity with the body of Christ (I Cor. 12:25–26).

The next Karabakh will most likely be Syunik, the southernmost province of the Republic of Armenia, which Turkey and Azerbaijan are now eyeing greedily. And there will be other Karabakhs. Christian communities around the world are facing oppression, military attack, and ethnic cleansing in ways that are not easy to define as violations of individual religious freedom. This is the case today in the Nuba Mountains, West Papua, Benue, Southern Kaduna, Manipur, and Karen state. 

But you likely haven’t heard of most of these places.

Joel Veldkamp is the head of international communications at Christian Solidarity International.

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Image by Diego Delso via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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