Religion and religious Institutions in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict: does the religious factor play a role?

Hovhannes Hovhannisyan, PhD


The role of religion and religious institutions has been extensively discussed in various ethnic, territorial and other conflicts, because religion and religious institutions, being in direct contact with large sections of society, have a direct influence on the emergence and escalation of conflict as well as its resolution or entering a stalemate. With their ideologies and connections, religion and religious institutions are directly related to nationalist sentiment, and as the degree of power or extremism of these attitudes grows, so does their manifestation in large sections of society1. This specific function of religious organizations distinguishes them from other organizations, because they have a direct influence on nationalist sentiment and, through them, on democratic processes2. A multidimensional and multidisciplinary approach to religion and religious organizations may become necessary in order to understand the role of religion as a major force for integration or marginalization. Religious nationalists too can produce extremist sentiment. Religious nationalists tend to view their religious traditions as so closely tied to their nation or their land that any threat to one of these is a threat to one's existence and identity. Therefore, religious nationalists respond to threats to the religion by seeking a political entity in which their faith is privileged at the expense of others. In these contexts, it is also likely that religious symbols will come to be used to forward ethnic or nationalist causes3. The article analyzes how the religious symbols, ideas, actors, stereotypes were used during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict to enhance nationalistic moods and feeling by both parties of the conflict4. The article uses primary sources to analyze the situation in Armenian side and secondary sources to evaluate the situation in Azerbaijani side. The material analyzing the situation from Azerbaijani side is primarily based on Azerbaijani sources.

Interrelation of Religion and Nationalism in Armenia and Azerbaijan

Considering the fact that religion is a latent source of conflict, any unexpected or external factor may cause the conflict to emerge or to escalate. In such situations, extremist moods may emerge and change the scope of the conflict from its initial status. More often, extremist ideas are encouraged by political forces or politicians, in order to stay in power or utilize government resources by using primitive nationalist concepts. One of the most obvious ways to exploit nationalist ideas is by circulating religious ideas, religious figures and religious institutions in the context of nationalism and their dissemination through the news media and other means. A clear example of this is the presence of clergy from the Armenian Apostolic Church at the congresses and events of the Republican Party of Armenia, which has been in power for more than a decade and professes nationalist ideas, their billboards featuring priests with the slogan “Our strength is our faith” and so on.

The relationship between religion and nationalism is now widely discussed by scholars, although for a long period of time they denied that a relationship of this kind exists. Some scholars5 considered that nationalism is mostly the consequence of secular modernism and has no links with religion. This approach led to the conclusion that religion belongs to the traditional sphere whereas the nation is a modern phenomenon and its existence is linked to the modern secular forms of state6. But more recent theories claim that there is a strong relationship between religion and nationalism, and these two can even be combined and mixed to form “religious nationalism”7. This is a new form of nationalism where religion plays a crucial role, which has become evident in recent developments especially in the Muslim world. It should be noted, however, that religious nationalism takes different shapes, such as Islamic nationalism, Christian nationalism, Jewish nationalism, etc.

Religious nationalism in Armenia and Azerbaijan takes the form of Christian and Islamic nationalism respectively, with their local specific features. The interrelation of religion and nationalism is a troublesome issue for South Caucasus countries and especially for the Armenian-Azerbaijani case. Although Georgia and Armenia are largely Christian, they represent two theologically separate branches of this faith, while Azerbaijanis are adherents of different Muslim sectarian communities8. Thus, conflicts are not simply based on Christian/Muslim antagonisms, but they also represent conflicting traditions within either faith. Religious institutions have also been colored by extra-religious traditions based on ethnic pre-Christian or pre-Muslim cultures. Although there have been numerous attempts to foster greater religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue, these efforts have affected only small sectors of the societies, and have rarely had any effect within the ranks of the decision makers. UNESCO initiated the publishing of common narratives, regional and/or community histories as integral aspects of intangible cultural heritages, trying to promote intercultural and interfaith dialogue at all levels of societies, while also encouraging hundreds of youth actions and initiatives, but these efforts did little to improve the situation in the region and may have actually worsened it. 

The situation is quite interesting in the case of the Armenian-Azerbaijani relationship since the different majority religions of the two countries, Christianity and Islam, differently influence their national identities, as well as their historical and current narratives. Although historical issues are not the main focus of this research, it is worth mentioning that historical memory and historical narratives not only influence the attitude of ethnic groups towards each other but also feed the contemporary reality. 

On the one side the memory of the Armenian Genocide is one of the basic elements forming the Armenian identity, which has its influence not only on the relationships with Turkey but also with Azerbaijan, since Armenians identify the Azerbaijani and Turkish people under two general notions - “Turks” and “Muslims”. Although the Turks and Azerbaijanis belong to two different branches of Islam, religion in this case becomes one in the common memory of Armenians9. This has been used with good effect by the Armenian political and military leadership by showing movies to soldiers about the Armenian Genocide occurred in Turkey in 1915 and nurturing a patriotic spirit aimed against the enemy – “the Muslim Turk”10

On the other side one of the main components of the modern identity of Azerbaijani society has come to be Anti-Armenianism, which is preached and sponsored by the state. Naturally, this propaganda has a political context, to which, however, many cultural and religious monuments are falling victim. As a result of the anti-Armenian propaganda, the possibility of dialogue is growing more difficult, especially among the younger generation, because the youth do not have a common history of having lived together in one country, or any memories of the nation on the other side.

Multiple Identities, Globalization, and Political Elites

The South Caucasus is one of the most diverse, multiethnic, and controversial regions on the globe, where different kind of transformations and changes take place in political, economic, cultural, religious and other spheres almost every day. The syndrome of small countries, the period of transition and incomplete formation of different national ideas and concepts has given rise to an escalating discourse on national identity and national ideology not only among scholars but also among public figures, politicians, journalists, etc. Each of the three republics of the South Caucasus region has some unsolved problems relating to their history, the formation of their nationality and the future sustainability of its citizenship. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the wars in the region led to increased tendencies of emigration and the formation of a new diaspora. The war strengthened political rhetoric towards the propaganda of nationalism, national values, national identity, etc. and thus endangered the normal functioning of democratic institutions, democratic values and approaches. Nationalist ideas somehow limited religious and ethnic diversity since nationalism is based on the prevalence of one’s nation or ethnic group but not on one’s citizenship. This is why there has been a huge migration from the South Caucasus region to Russia, the USA and Europe as well as because the lack of diversity has led to a lack of opportunities, a formation of clan systems, giving rise to oligarchy and monopolies and breaching the basic principles of democratic institutions and value systems.

Each of the nations living in the South Caucasus has its own characteristics and a range of multiple identities11. Although the term “multiple identity” is used for individuals having different roles – class, familiar, territorial, etc., but “multiple identity” is attributable to nations as well, as they have different cultures, self-identification mechanisms, beliefs and convictions12. These multiple identities of different nations living in each country and in the region may have some similarities and platform for cooperation and tolerance at the level of “civil religion” when the rights and responsibilities of civil society will prevail over the interests of a clan, tribe or separate nations. 

Manifestations of collective identities in the South Caucasus emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union when in the framework of “lifeworld” (Lebenswelt) people could find common convictions and ideas covered with a historical dressing13. There are opinions that the Soviet Union, with its economic development, became the basis for the formation of different nations. The opposite opinion holds that the Soviet Union was itself an antinational entity14. Currently it is being stated in the public discourse of the three countries that the hegemonic religious ideology plays a great role in the formation of the nation, national identity and national ideology. Historically, when democratic developments or institutions fail, religious components become an integral part of national ideology and identity. “To comprehend the national identity means to make structural changes in the national lifeworld,” states the philosopher A. Voskanyan15

Starting from the beginning of the 20th century, the countries of the South Caucasus have had a common fate in many aspects. First, they were under the rule of Tsarist Russia, then gained independence from 1918-1921, and afterwards became part of the Soviet Union. Religious institutions were suppressed and many clergymen were sentenced to death. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the South Caucasus republics faced a number of political, economic and cultural problems and some of the problems were connected with their existence next to each other. After the independence in 1991, all three republics started the complex process of the formation of a national and collective identity which was mostly based on the image of enemy. 

For Armenia, such rivals were Turkey from the West and Azerbaijan from the East. The Armenian Genocide of 1915 plays a special role in the national identity and ideology of Armenians. The Nagorno-Karabakh war (1991-1994) and the rehabilitation of historical justice is basically the continuation of the struggle with the “Turks”. It is worth mentioning that such an approach is mostly supported by the Armenian Apostolic Church. The latter still remains the strongest channel connecting the Armenian Diaspora with the Republic of Armenia. However, this link is mostly formal and “touristic”, as the majority of the Armenian Diaspora are descendants of the Armenians who lived in Turkey until the beginning of the 20th century. Therefore, they do not consider the current Republic of Armenia as their real Motherland16. This point of view will change among the Armenian Diaspora only when the Armenian Government implements democratic changes in the Republic of Armenia17.

Azerbaijan sees that rival in Armenia, the Armenian Diaspora and the Russian Federation. The restoration of the territorial integrity of the country and solving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is essential for the collective identity of the Azerbaijani nation. On the other hand, the major issues or Azerbaijan are internal – the limited activities of democratic institutions, the co-existence of various ethnic groups and so on.

One of the problems in the South Caucasian Republics is the governing elites. After the Rose Revolution in Georgia, many young people came to the power. Similar changes are taking place in Armenia and Azerbaijan, albeit slowly. But the problem of fair and good governance still remains, as these young people are mostly “modernizers and not reformers”. Many of these nationalist young governors talk about democratic reforms, European standards, etc. but in the reality they are the continuers of their “elders” in a modern way. Many of them are educated abroad but the eagerness to stay in power does not let them talk openly and sincerely. Thomas de Waal states: “They (modernizers) occasionally say that they cannot afford to allow more democracy in their country because that would ’stop reforms,’ opposition politicians would gain power and Georgia would slide backwards18.” This approach is basically the same in Armenia and Azerbaijan as well, as political reforms almost always remain on paper. 

The governing elites of Armenia and Azerbaijan are somehow against the activities of civil society groups and organizations as open debate will promote the conflict resolution process from one side, but also may increase the democratization process from the other side, which goes against the political interests of governing elites. The relationship of democratization and conflict resolution was widely discussed by an Armenian and Azerbaijani expert meeting: “This unhappy relationship between conflict resolution and democratization processes is a key to the lack of progress in the Nagorno-Karabakh process. No degree of international cooperation will resolve this problem, although a more principled stance on democratic standards from outside powers might help. Yet Armenian and Azerbaijani elites are arguably faced with a choice: risk the fallout of another failed peace process or loosen the reins of power to allow a peace deal to move forward. They need to weigh up where the greater threat to their power comes from - the conflict resolution process or the democratization process. It seems fair to say that the ‘colored revolution moment’ has passed in the former Soviet Union; is it time to allow effective political participation to enable the peace process to move forward?19” The situation in the region comes to prove that the governing authorities in the South Caucasus countries made their choice for none of the above mentioned as they do not try to resolve conflicts and there is no real and constituent democracy in the region. 

Religion in conflict 

From the very beginning of the Karabakh movement (February 1988), the Soviet Union, led by M. Gorbachev, tried to present the conflict in a religious and ethnic light, which would make it easier for the Soviet Union to intervene in the conflict and impose a quick solution. The leaders of the Karabakh movement were not unanimous on this issue. Movement leader I. Muradyan was more inclined to highlight a religious aspect in the conflict, but the majority of the people in the movement were against this. “The Soviet Union was trying to incite us into turning the Karabakh issue into an ethnic or religious clash. That would leave Gorbachev’s hands free to act.20

In this sense, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict differs considerably from other territorial or ethnic conflicts. It arose in the Soviet period, when religion and religious institutions played a minimal role in society, which continued further on into post-Soviet period. In the South Caucasus, the fact that the Armenian-Turkish and Armenian-Azerbaijani borders are closed deepens the mistrust between the neighboring countries and, in the presence of strong state propaganda, bears forth a number of varied myths. There have constantly been attempts to involve religious institutions in the conflict or to give the conflict a religious connotation, but these have never been successful because of a lack of an objective basis for them.

In the present situation, religion and external affairs are tightly connected with each other as Armenia and Azerbaijan countries still have an unresolved political issue – the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict21. On the regional level, the basic developments between the parties that are related to this and other issues are connected with the Nagorno-Karabakh problem in one way or another. In the specialized scholarly literature, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has been discussed and analyzed from the standpoint of general approaches to ethnic or territorial conflicts. Other components, which might have played a smaller role in the conflict or in the post-conflict era, have been ignored by researchers and policy-makers. It is well known that any conflict has its own specifics and particularities, hence their solution cannot be identical in all cases, and the approaches to conflict resolution should be diversified22.

During and after the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, some representatives of the scholarly and political spheres of Azerbaijan made several attempts to present the conflict as a religious one23.   These attempts to give the conflict a religious connotation were aimed at drawing in the Iranian side on one hand, and arousing religious solidarity among Islamic countries and getting their support on the other. In this sense, it should be noted that such a policy had achieved some results in the beginning, for example among the Wahhabis who are prevalent in the North Caucasus as well as the anti-Armenian stance adopted by some Islamic countries (Pakistan, Saudi Arabia) which continues to this day.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the Karabakh war led to a “re-Islamization” of Azerbaijan and a large section of society began to return to their old religion. The process of Islamization did not last very long, because it was linked mainly to the Iranian factor and when there was none of the expected support from Iran during the Karabakh conflict, the ideology of pan-Turkism began to seem more relevant for the country24. In parallel with the strengthening of the Turkish factor, Sunni extremist factions began to operate actively in Azerbaijan. 

From one side, the Islamic factor was further strengthened by the penetration of extremist Islamic thinking and especially Wahhabism from the North Caucasus, which mainly spread among the ethnic minorities. The Wahhabists, led by the renowned Chechen commander Shamil Basayev, tried to spread Wahhabism in the country by participating in the Karabakh war and evoking a sense of Islamic solidarity. However, a few months later, disappointed in the weak religiousness of the Azerbaijanis, they left the country25. At the same time many mujaheddin and wahhabis took part in the conflict on the side of Azerbaijan26. The ineffectual negotiations in progress around the peaceful resolution of the Karabakh issue strengthened the radical school of thought in Azerbaijan, especially among the youth who were not only trying to find a moral leaning post, but also the answers to a number of their questions. And because both Russia and the West have been discredited in Azerbaijan, a part of the population began to consider the declaration of Iranian revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini relevant - “Neither West nor East – only Islam.27” In Azerbaijan, some extremist Sunni groups tried many times to declare a religious war (jihad) against Armenians to gain the financial, physical and spiritual support of Islamic countries but could not mobilize all these forces against the Armenians28.

In the South Caucasus, and particularly in the Karabakh conflict, one cannot neglect to consider the Iranian factor, which was an active part in ceasing the bloody conflict. Being an Islamic country and having a large Azeri population, Iran displayed quite a balanced approach towards the Karabakh issue and never made it religious, although expectations to this effect were quite high in Azerbaijan29. Notwithstanding the fact that Iran declared its position many times about the maintenance and restoration of the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, at the same time it was clear that Iran did not put any kind of pressure (economic, political, cultural etc.) on Armenia for a pro-Azerbaijani solution to the problem. The explanation of such an approach depends on the various problems existing between Azerbaijan and Iran (distribution of Caspian oil, the problem of Northern Iran, Azerbaijan’s good relationship with Israel and the US etc.). Thus, Iran-Azerbaijan relations are more relevant to the concept of “enemy brothers” than to the concept of “two countries, one nation”30.

The active participation of Iran in the peace process showed that the conflict is mostly based on ethnic issues rather than religious ones31. The Armenians' agreement on the mediation of Iran32 (which was interrupted when the Armenians took control over the city of Shushi in 1993) showed to the world that despite some religious components, the conflict is based on ethnic (Armenia’s approach) and/or territorial problems (Azerbaijan’s approach). Usually, experts in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict do not pay much attention to the religious factor in this conflict as the political, economic, social and other factors prevail.

Local Identities and the Role of Religious Institutions

Anthony D. Smith suggests that “national identity involves some sense of political community”33. This community should have its own mechanisms and institutions, as well as rights and responsibilities. In a country where these rules do not work, other rules start to function. One of the principles of national identity is demarcated and bordered territory which34 explains the permanent wars for territories in the South Caucasus region. The territorial concept is predominantly a “Western” or “civic” model of a nation and according to this model nations should have demarcated, well-defined territories or “sacred homelands”. These territories mostly are the historic and sacred places of the people and all memories and historical events are connected to the territory35. This model is what basically works in South Caucasus countries. 

Another scholar, Benedict Anderson, states that “it [the nation-H.H.] is an imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.”36 Following his idea there is no real nation or national identity because “the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow members”37 and everybody only has an imagined perception of the community to which they belong. Such an approach eliminates the concepts of “national identity” and “nation” and poses some philosophical questions. 

In studying the relations between the Armenians and Azerbaijanis, much attention should be paid to the identification of people based on religion. In other words, it is interesting to recognize the extent to which people living in the South Caucasus identify themselves as Muslims or Christians and the role of religion in their everyday life. According to research implemented in Azerbaijan, children of age 12 have already formed a Muslim identity, i.e. for these children, to be Azerbaijani means to be Muslim and vice versa38. However, the same cannot be said for Armenians. It should be noted that this strong link between ethnic and religious identity is inherent not only in children, but also in the general consciousness. Though the case is similar with Armenians and Georgians, there are nevertheless some differences. For example, the Georgians refer to Ajarians as Muslim Georgians. And Armenians recently gave big importance to the discourse that national identity should be separated from religious identity, although the Armenian constitution recognizes the great role of national Armenian Apostolic Church throughout the history of Armenia. On September 24, 2008, the President of Armenia, Serzh Sargsyan, declared that the identity of Armenians should not be based on religion but mostly on the concept of freedom, equality. “The apostolic, orthodox, catholic, protestant or Muslim Armenian is simply Armenian”39.

This announcement gained a lot of attention in academic circles and the general public, leading to a lot of discourse on what it meant to call oneself an Armenian and on the Armenian identity in general. Although many members of the ruling party began to advocate this new discourse aimed at the Diaspora by the President, this was followed a while later by an announcement by the Prime Minister, whose affinity with the Church is well known, that the “Constitutional clause about the separation of the State and the Church is obsolete.”40 An announcement of this kind and the introduction of the History of the Armenian Church as a subject in schools as well as active preaching41 in schools demonstrate that in issues of the Armenian identity, a large role is given to the religious factor – moreover, this religious factor is assumed to mean a belonging to the Armenian Apostolic Church42.

Traditionally, represented by the Armenian Apostolic Church, religion has played a crucial role in preserving the Armenian identity and cultural heritage in the absence of an Armenian state in the middle ages. Nowadays, it continues to have a major place in society and in public life, although its role in identity matters has essentially decreased. From this perspective, such issues were also touched on during the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict because some monuments reflecting religion were destroyed. It is worth mentioning that the Armenians identified the Azerbaijani population with Turks. The Armenian negative view of the Muslim Turkish ethnos was largely due to the ethnic cleansings that took place in Ottoman Turkey in the beginning of the 20th century. The consciousness that they were waging war for their ancestors massacred during the Genocide of 1915 played a crucial role among the Armenians fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh, who believed that their ancestors had been forced to convert to Islam in order to survival. Anti-Turkish, and consequentially anti-Azerbaijani, sentiment reached a new level as a result of the massacres of Armenians in Sumgayit in 1988 and Baku in 1990. For a nation bearing the memory of the Genocide, to fight seemed liked the only means for survival. 

In the early stages of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, religious institutions were still in the stage of establishing themselves, because atheistic thinking continued to be dominant simply by inertia. In this period, particular religious figures began to have a more influential role than others, like imams who gained a big role during military operations through the sheer force of their individual reputations.

The Prelate of the Artsakh Diocese, the Reverend Archbishop Pargev, should be included in this list of people. In the very first days of the war, he conducted spiritual and religious activity in the Armenian population. “The only prominent Armenian who has made a commitment to Shusha is the local archbishop, Pargev. He moved here only a few days after the town was captured in 1992 and began raising money to rebuild its churches”43.  Under his instructions, prayer books and crosses were distributed to a large number of soldiers, who kept these items with them at all times. Twenty five thousand Bibles and fifteen thousand Children’s Bibles were distributed to the population: Often, the military detachments would come to the spiritual leader of Artsakh to get his blessing before going to war.

There were cases, when the commander of the detachment organized the baptism of those soldiers in the detachment who were not yet baptized (the Sissian detachment)44. On the order of the Catholicos Vazgen, all the clergymen serving in Artsakh were awarded crosses of honor. Father Koryun, a clergyman who served in Artsakh, narrated the following interesting story. On the orders of Arhbishop Pargev, in the spaces between the regular shelling of Stepanakert from Shushi, the clergyman had to take their crosses of honor and walk along the streets, drawing the attention of the people and instilling faith in them, to convince them that it would not be right to flee Karabakh45. At the same time, children in schools and kindergartens were taught different prayers, which would also sometimes spread to their parents, who had otherwise not been exposed to religious knowledge46. During the Karabakh movement, writer Zori Balayan, who was a well-known activist, had this to say about Reverend Pargev – “Reverend Pargev is a pargev (blessing) for Karabakh.” During the conflict and even to this day, the way one referred to the people across the border was in itself an expression of religion. The Armenians called the Azerabaijans mollahs and ahmads, and during a full moon they would fire in the direction of that religious symbol in order to irritate their enemies. The Azerbaijanis called the Armenian vazgens, referring to the leader of the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Catholicos Vazgen47. On the front line of defense, there were even warning posters with this wording used in messages, which aimed to avoid the loss of unnecessary lives. On the order of the leader of the Artsakh Diocese, when the clergymen met with soldiers, they continuously emphasized the important principles of “not spilling blood unnecessarily”, “treating prisoners humanely” and “appreciating the value of each soldier’s life”48.

In Azerbaijan, Muslim religious organizations were unable to play the same role as their Armenian counterparts. Certain individuals (as already mentioned, Shamil Basayev and others) tried to arouse religious feeling in Azerbaijan on the grounds of Wahhabism, using the concepts of “religious jihad”, but they failed in doing so. 

From the point of view of religious symbolism, one event of particular interest was the entry of soldiers led by Reverend Pargev into the Ghazanchetsots Church, their prayer there and their efforts to retransform it from a munitions storage into a church. The assault on Shushi has been called a crusade by the Armenian side where the Holy Grail has been replaced by the Ghazanchetsots Church, converted into munitions storage. Interestingly, before commencing the assault on Shushi, many of the soldiers came to the Diocese on May 7 and asked for crosses. Reverend Pargev distributed more than one thousand crosses and when there were some soldiers left who had not received one, he advised them to make crosses on themselves.49  Director Tigran Khzmalyan recalled an episode he had caught on film, “Because the uniforms of the Armenians and the Azerbaijanis were the same color, our side would use bandaging or other material to make white lines on their backs. The boys ended up making those lines in the form of a cross, because the cross is the simplest geometrical figure to make. Can you imagine the scene when the command was sounded and all of them lined up? 400 men stood at dusk with crosses on their backs, ready to go and give up their lives. This was a crusade and the most amazing thing was that it was not done on purpose.”50 Although the crosses on their uniforms had not been made with a religious objective, they were later given religious meaning and significance. International expert Thomas de Waal described Shushi as the “Jerusalem of Karabakh” where once again there was a symbolic attempt to equate the assault on Shushi as a religious battle.51 One of the symbols of the battles to liberate Shushi is also the leader of the Artsakh Diocese, the Reverend Pargev himself, whose entry into the Ghazanchetsots Church is always shown on television as a central scene from Shushi Day.


South Caucasian republics have an identity of being a “bridge between East and West”. The concept of a “civilizational bridge” between East and West, Islam and Christianity, in a cultural and political sense is widely discussed in the scholarly and public circles of all the three countries.  In all the countries there are different theories and historical facts on the “Silk Road” which is one more proof of being a cross-road for different cultures, religions, civilizational floods, etc52

However, the non-functioning of democratic institutions, violations of human rights and freedoms as well as lack of proper education may bring to the escalation of nationalistic movements and trends in the South Caucasus53. At the beginning of 1990s, the nationalist movements of South Caucasus were mostly connected to the collapse of the Soviet Union, post-Soviet realities and declaration of newly independent states. The current nationalism of the South Caucasus is quite different from that of the 1990s as these nationalist movements are based on an over-evaluation of national identity and unity, heroes and myths of the past, sometimes on quasi values and are mainly the ideological basis for conservative forces. The propaganda of such ideas as “one nation, one culture, one religion (or church)” contradicts the democratic values and principles of religious, cultural, political diversity, as well as the constitutions of the South Caucasus republics. Such approaches give rise to the nationalism supported by the majorities’ religions or churches. The rise of nationalism is very dangerous for the South Caucasus region as the conflicts in the region have not yet been resolved and the status quo gives birth to various myths making the peace-building processes in the region more difficult. Such developments are also harmful for the national and religious diversity of the South Caucasus region as it is one of the multiethnic and multi-religious regions on the globe54.

Religion and religious institutions played a role in the Karabakh conflict, but not in the sense of direct influence, but more of a symbolic and secondary nature. The situation in the South Caucasus is well described by N. Chikovani: “The analysis of the role of religion in the Caucasian conflicts in the 1990s reveals the fact that religion did not play a leading role in these conflicts; it had a function of demarcation in cases when the opposed parties represented different religions. The conflicts led to strengthening the mutual distrust, but the conflicts resulted from the politicization of ethnicity and not religion”55.

At the same time, some political actors have exaggerated the religious factor by presenting the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as a purely religious one. Of course, many politicians have tried to use religion for political reasons and have abused the role of religion in the society. From this point of view, there were some actors in Armenia who also used the force of religion to enhance the spiritual feelings of faithful Christians and to present the conflict as a fight to preserve the ancestral culture and heritage. On the Azeri side, there have also been many attempts to use Islam to consolidate faithful Muslims against the “unbelievers” in order to preserve the ancestral land and culture. Such rhetoric exacerbated the hostile attitudes toward each other and at times resulted in terrible consequences56. Notwithstanding the incident in Nakhichevan, i.e. the destruction of the khachkars (cross stones) in the Armenian cemetery (condemned by UNESCO and other International organizations), both the Armenian and the Azerbaijani authorities have, for the most part, abstained from damaging churches or mosques. The Armenian Church preserved in Baku has been reciprocated by the Armenian side through the mosques preserved in Shushi and Aghdam and even through talk of renovating the mosque in Shushi57. The Blue Mosque in the center of Yerevan is also considered in Azerbaijan to be of Azerbaijani origin, although it is officially Iranian and has been under Iranian administration. In turn, there have been opinions on the Armenian side that it not just the Yerevan mosque which is Iranian, but also the ones in Aghdam and Shushi58 (though these mosques are Shi’a, not Iranian or Azerbaijanian). Thus, it should be noted that military action has changed its nature and hard force has been substituted by soft force, such as history, culture, religion, identity, memory, etc. 

1. Brubaker, R. Religion and Nationalism. Nations and Nationalism, 18 (1), 2012, p. 6.
2. Little, David. Religious Militancy in Managing Global Chaos, eds. Chester A. Crocker, Fen Osler Hampson, and Pamela Aall (Washington DC: USIP Press, 1996).
3. Brahm, Eric. Religion and Conflict: Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: November 2005 .
4. In this article the author uses the primary sources from Armenian side and secondary sources from Azerbaijani side. Due to conflict it is impossible to have primary sources from Azerbaijan. However the author mostly quotes Azerbaijani sources while discussing the material related to Azerbaijan.
5. Kedourie, E. Nationalism. London, 1993; Gellner, E. Nations and Nationalism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983; Hobsbawm, E. The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
6. Anderson, B. Imagined Communities, New York, 1991; Hayes, C. Nationalism: A Religion. New York, 1960; Llobera, J. The God of Modernity: The Development of Nationalism in Western Europe. Oxford, 1996.
7. Brubaker, R. Religion and Nationalism. Nations and Nationalism, 18 (1), 2012, Friedland, R. Religious Nationalism and the Problem of Collective Representation Annual Review of Sociology, 2001, 27: 125-152; Juergensmeyer, M. The New Cold War? Religious Nationalism Confronts the Secular State. Berkeley, Los Angeles, Oxford: University of California Press, 1994; Van Der Veer, P. Religious Nationalism. Berkeley, London, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994. Rieffer, Barbara-Ann J. Religion and Nationalism: Understanding the Consequences of a Complex Relationship 2003, Ethnicities 3:215-43; Spohn, W. Multiple Modernity, Nationalism and Religion: A Global Perspective Current Sociology 2003, 51:265-87; Hoppenbrouwers, F. Winds of Change: Religious Nationalism in a Transformational Context Religion, State and Society 2002, 30:305-316.
8. For more information on different religious organizations of the South Caucasus region see World Religions in the Context of the Contemporary Culture: New Perspectives of Dialogue and Mutual Understanding, published in cooperation and with the financial support of the UNESCO Moscow Office and the UNESCO Office in Almaty, in the framework of the UNESCO/UNITWIN Network on Interreligious Dialogue for Intercultural Understanding, St. Petersburg, 2011.
9. See Abrahamian, L. Armenian Identity in a Changing World, Costa Mesa, 2006, pp. 247-264.
10. The anthropological study was conducted in Nagorno-Karabakh by anthropologist N. Shahnazaryan. For more information, see
11. Smith, A. D. National identity, p. 4.
12. It is argued that the term “identity” itself manifests change and diversity. See in details Brubaker, R. and Cooper, F. Beyond "Identity". Theory and Society, Vol. 29, No. 1 (Feb., 2000), pp. 1-47.
13. See Habermas, J. Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns. F.a. M. 1982, B. 2., pp. 173-177.
14. See Brubaker, R. and Cooper, F. Beyond "Identity". Theory and Society, Vol. 29, No. 1 (Feb., 2000), pp. 25-26. They argue that “In this context, strong understandings of national identity as deeply rooted in the pre-communist history of the region, frozen or repressed by a ruthlessly antinational regime and returning with the collapse of communism are at best anachronistic, at worst simply scholarly rationalizations of nationalist rhetoric”.
15. Voskanyan, A. The Problem of National Identity and the Mission of Intellectuals. “Identity”. Yerevan, 1995, p.18.
16. See Hovhannisyan, H. An Attempt to Analyze the Relationship between Holy See Echmiadzin and Great House of Cilicia during the Second Part of 20th Century,  Faculty of Theology, Periodical C, Yerevan, 2008, p. 316-338.
17. See Smith, A. D. Ethnic Myths and Ethnic Revivals, European Journal of Sociology, N 25, 1984, 283-305.
18. The article of senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Thomas de Waal is published in Washington Post an article titled “Will Georgia’s leader ‘pull a Putin’ or trust his people?” Retrieved from
19. Karabakh 2014: Six analysts on the future of the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process, Conciliation resources, 2009.
20. Extract from Հակոբյան Թ., Կանաչ և սև [ Hakobyan T., Green and Black, Yerevan-Stepanakert 2008, page 69] – Vazgen Manukyan’s interview to Public Radio, November 2007.
21. Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is an armed conflict between Armenians and Azerbaijanis over the enclave of Nagorno Karabakh. It started at the end of 1980s and in December, 1994 a ceasefire agreement was signed among Armenia, Azerbaijan and Nagorno Karabakh. Peace negotiations by mediation of OSCE Minsk group continue up to date without any essential result.
22. For more information on conflicts see Herzig, E. The New Caucasus: Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, London, RIIA Pinter, 1999.
23. In an interview with Salam News Agency, the former President of Azerbaijan Ayaz Mutalibov expressed the opinion that the member States of the OSCE Minsk group (USA, Russia, France) are Christian countries, which will help Armenia manipulate the Karabakh issue and Muslim Azerbaijan cannot do anything in this respect. He also mentioned that Armenia tries to represent the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as a clash between Muslim and Christian worlds and Azerbaijan should stand between these two worlds and become a balancing force in the region. This announcement was made on October 06, 2011. Retrieved from
24. See Юнусов А.С. Исламская палитра Азербайджана, [Yunusov A. S., The Islamic Palette of Azerbaijan, Baku 2012, pg 8]
25. Ibid, pg 54; See Юнусов А.С.  Наемники в армяно-азербайджанской войне [Yunusov A. S., Mercenaries in the Armenian-Azerbaijani War] Self-publication; Newspaper Express Chronika N 38, 16-23 September 1993; Юнусов А.С. Чеченский фактор [Yunusov A. S., The Chechnyan Factor, “Bulletin of the Ethnological Monitoring and Early Conflict Prevention Network, Moscow, 2001, N 36, March-April, p. 72.
26. See Taarnby, M. The Mujaheddin in Nagorno-Karabakh: A Case Study in the Evolution of Global Jihad Retrieved from; Pashayan, A. Mujahideen in War in Karabakh, Noravank Foundation, 2009. Retrieved from 
27. Extracted from Юнусов А.С.  Азербайджан в начале XXI века [Yunusov A. S., Azerbaijan in the Beginning of the XXI Century: Conflicts and Potential Threats, Baku, 2007, pgs 129-137].
28. Retrieved from Nagorno-Karabakh: Overture to the War on Terror by Rita Willaert,
29. Deriglazova L., Minasyan S. Nagorno-Karabakh: The Paradoxes of Strength and Weakness in an Asymmetric Conflict, Caucasus Institute, Yerevan, 2011, p. 69.
30. See Azerbaijan-Iran Relations: ‘One Nation Two States’ or ‘Enemy Brothers’,
31. See From Nonsense to Nationhood: A Dangerous Trajectory of Azerbaijani Nationalism. Retrieved from 
32. Iran has always tried to maintain neutrality between Armenia and Azerbaijan because the escalation of conflict could have the worst influence on Iran and also Iran always tries to be the main player in regional politics. The agreement of the Armenian side during the conflict for mediation by Shi'a Iran would have been possible only if the Armenian side had been convinced in the non-religious and neutral approach of Iran. Retrieved from
33. Smith, A. D. National identity, Las Vegas, 1991, p. 9.
34. Ibid, p. 13.
35. See Smith, A. D. States and Homelands: the Social and Geopolitical Implications of National Territory, “Millenium”, Journal of International Studies 10, No. 3, pp. 187-202.
36. Anderson, B. Imagined communities, p. 6.
37. Ibid.
38. Efendiyeva, G., Aliyev, B. Interreligious Dialogue in the Context of Contemporary Culture: Islam, Christianity, and Other Religions in Azerbaijan. World religions in the Context of the Contemporary Culture: New Perspectives of Dialogue and Mutual Understanding. p. 176-177.
39. Speech delivered by President Serzh Sargsyan on September 24, 2008 in the United States at the official reception hosted by the Embassy of Armenia to the US, Permanent Mission of Armenia to the United States and leading Armenian-American organizations . Retrieved from See also “Erkir” daily newspaper, September 25, 2008.
40. See Գրիգորյան Ռ. Կրոնական հանդուրժողականության վիճակը Հայաստանում, [Grigoryan S, The State of Religious Tolerance in Armenia, Religion and Society journal, No. 5,  November 2008, p. 89.
41. For more on active religious preaching in schools, see Դանիելյան Ս., Ղազարյան Ա., Հովհաննիսյան Հ., Ավթանդիլյան Ա. Կրոնական կրթության խնդիրները Հայաստանի Հանրապետության հանրակրթական դպրոցներում [Danielyan S., Ghazaryan A, Hovhannisyan H. Avtandilyan A, The Issues of Religious education in Schools in the Republic of Armenia, Yerevan, 2012].
42. Hovhannisyan H., The Problems of Armeniancy in the Religious Dimension, 21st century (information and analytical journal), 1 (11), Yerevan, 2012, pp. 24-30.
43. de Waal, Thomas, Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan through Peace and War, New York University Press, 2003, p. 191.
44. Interview with Archbishop Pargev, February 03, 2013.
45. Interview with priest Koryun who served in Nagorno-Karabakh for 17 years, December 11, 2012.
46. Interview with Archbishop Pargev, February 03, 2013.
47. Interview with former soldier Varuzhan Gaskasyan, December 15, 2012.
48. Interview with Archbishop Pargev, February 03, 2013.
49. Interview with Archbishop Pargev, February 03, 2013. Besides this he also mentioned that May 7 has symbolic importance, because it is the Feast of the Revelation of the Cross in Jerusalem, whereas that feast is celebrated between May 10 and 14 in the calendar of the Armenian Church.
50. Interview with Tigran Khzmalian, 3 July 2006 as cited in Հակոբյան Թ., Կանաչ և սև, էջ 161 [Hakobyan T., Green and Black, page 161].
51. Waal, Thomas de. The Caucasus. Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 103. See also Waal, Thomas de. Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan through Peace and War, p. 184-185.
52. See Abrahamian, L. Armenian Identity in a Changing World, pp. 345-349. Svante, E. Cornell & S. Frederick Starr, The Caucasus: A Challenge for Europe, Uppsala & Washington: CACI & SRSP Silk Road Paper, June 2006, p. 25-80. “The region has been a crossroads and meeting place between Christianity and Islam, Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Persians, and Russians”. Waal, Thomas de. Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan through Peace and War, p. 187.
53. See Situation with human rights in countries of South Caucasus: results of sociological surveys 2002 / Regional Project "South Caucasus Network for Civil Accord." Yerevan: Lusabats Pub. House, 2003, pp. 1-68.
54. See Matveeva, A. South Caucasus: Nationalism, Conflict and Minorities, Minority Rights Group International, 2002, pp. 8-27.
55. Chikovani, N. Christianity and Islam in Modern Georgia: the Experience, Challenges, and Search for Responses. World Religions in the Context of the Contemporary Culture: New Perspectives of Dialogue and Mutual Understanding. p. 107. For further details see Crossroads and Conflict: Security and Foreign Policy in the Caucasus and Central Asia. New York-London, 2000, p. 8.
56. The tendency to eliminate each other’s cultural heritage continues even today, which means that the confrontation has been transferred to a cultural-religious sphere. The renowned international expert on the South Caucasus region Thomas de Waal mentions the issue of the Nakhichevan Khachkars (Cross stones) destroyed in Azerbaijan and also the removal of script from the walls of a church in Nij in Northern Azerbaijan. Waal, Thomas de. The Caucasus. p. 108.  
57. The small mosque of Shushi has been renovated with the personal participation of the leader of the Artsakh Diocese. The Iranian side has expressed interest in the renovation of the large mosque and then backed down from the implementation due to political reasons. Interestingly, this initiative has been mentioned at a meeting of the Organization of Islamic Conference, when the Iranian representative called this Armenian initiative a positive step. Interview with Archbishop Pargev, February 03, 2013.
58. Waal, Thomas de. The Caucasus. p. 102-108. See also Waal, Thomas de. Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan through Peace and War, p. 192-193.