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"Passion of the Christ" director Mel Gibson has made an impassioned appeal on behalf of the ethnically Armenian Christians fleeing the breakaway Republic of Artsakh after being routed in recent days by Azerbaijani troops.
"History tragically repeats itself as we witness a modern-day genocide unfolding, yet the media's silence on this issue is deafening," said Gibson. "The Armenian people who have endured centuries of persecution due to their faith find themselves once again subjected to a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing."
What's the background?
The Republic of Artsakh, also known as Nagorno-Karabakh, is a region in the Caucasus Mountains that lies within Azerbaijan's borders. While internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan — whose close ally Turkey, formerly the Ottoman Empire, killed 1.5 million Armenians in what is regarded to be the first genocide of the 20th century — the region's largely Armenian population does not recognize Azerbaijan's territorial claims.
The region became autonomous in 1923 while Armenia, whose population is over 93% Christian, and Azerbaijan, whose population is 97.3% Muslim, were still both members of the former Soviet Union, reported CNN.
Over the past 30 years, two wars have been fought over the area.
The first of those wars kicked off amid the breakdown of the USSR, when in 1988, Artsakh officials passed a resolution to join Armenia. Roughly 30,000 people died in the ensuing conflict.
The second war, which took place in 2020, saw Turkey help crush the Armenian separatists in 44 days. Reuters indicated that at least 6,500 were killed in the fighting.
In the years since, 2,000 Russian peacekeepers have attempted to keep the peace and prevent Azerbaijan from making further incursions.
Deteriorating relations between Armenia, the world's oldest official Christian country, and Russia, its protector over three decades, appear to have provided Azerbaijani nationalists with a window of opportunity.
CNN noted that in December 2022, Azerbaijan-backed militants blockaded the Lachin corridor, the only road connecting the enclave to Armenia, preventing food, fuel, and medicine from getting in.
This and other provocative measures brought tensions to a boiling point this year.
Claiming that a mine had killed two Azerbaijani soldiers without specifying precisely where, the Muslim nation launched a blitzkrieg on Artsakh on Sept. 19.
Hikmet Hajiyev, a foreign adviser to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, told Reuters last week that the Turkey-backed nation wanted to reestablish its full sovereignty and that negotiation would be contingent on total surrender.
Whereas Azerbaijan's military is 64,000 strong, with access to 300,000 reserves, the Armenian force in Artsakh was no greater than 5,000 souls.
Two hundred ethnic Armenians and 192 Azerbaijani soldiers reportedly died before Russia ultimately brokered a ceasefire, requiring the ethnic Armenians to disband their armed forces.
The Associated Press indicated that the Artsakh government indicated Thursday it would dissolve itself and abandon its decades-long fight for independence.
"The Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) ceases its existence" as of Jan. 1, 2024, according to a decree from Artsakh President Samvel Shakhramanyan.
Shakhramanyan noted that per the terms of a Sept. 20 agreement, Azerbaijan would permit the "free, voluntary and unhindered movement" of ethnic Armenians back to Armenia.
Ethnic Armenians began their exodus Sunday, some 50 miles from the city of Stepanakert, Artsakh, to Armenia.
As of Thursday, over 78,300 people had fled to Armenia, accounting for over 65% of Arsakh's population. KABC-TV indicated Friday that an Armenian border town had witnessed the influx of closer to 100,000 migrants.
The journey was punctuated for some by blood and fire.
During the evacuation, a fuel storage facility near Stepanakert exploded, wounding 200 people and killing over 68 civilians.
Rev. David, an Armenian priest who had ventured to Kornidzor to administer spiritual support to those now fleeing, told Reuters, "This is one of the darkest pages of Armenian history. The whole of Armenian history is full of hardships[. ...] The blow we are receiving now is one of the heaviest."
The priest indicated the last time Azerbaijani forces invaded, they desecrated and/or destroyed hundreds of Armenian holy sites.
"The monasteries are under threat of destruction," said Rev. David. "We had cases of this in the 44-day war."
Azerbaijan has reportedly indicated that ethnic Armenians who remain in the area will be able to practice their faith; however, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan noted that "in the coming days, there will be no Armenians left in Nagorno-Karabakh," reported the Associated Press.
"This is a direct act of an ethnic cleansing and depriving people of their motherland, exactly what we've [been] telling the international community about," said Pashinyan.
Azerbaijani officials rejected Pashinyan's suggestion, claiming that "the current departure of Armenians from Azerbaijan's Karabakh region is their personal and individual decision and has nothing to do with forced relocation."
Christian Solidarity International, a group critical of anti-Christian aggression committed by Azerbaijan, Sudan, and Egypt, claimed on X that "people are leaving not because they want to, but because #Azerbaijan is refusing to let them return to their homes or to move past the siege lines, and refusing to guarantee their security. These are de facto deportations."
"In the grip of Azerbaijan and Turkey, countless Armenians are enduring unspeakable horrors: loss of life, forced displacement, starvation, and isolation from essential supplies," said Gibson. "These are the same Armenians whose roots run deep in a land they've called home for generations."
The actor and director called upon the international community to "take swift action, extend a helping hand to the Armenian population, offer them the protection they desperately need, and create a humanitarian corridor for their safe passage."
Gibson concluded by imploring Armenians not to lose heart, stressing, "God is with you."
Mel Gibson condemns Azerbaijan's genocide of #Artsakh Christian Armenians, calling out media silence and demanding swift international action to protect and save Armenians\n\nTo the Armenian people who still suffer, I say: "Don't lose heart, God is with you"\n\n#120000Reasons— ANCA (@ANCA) 1695858627
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Joseph MacKinnon is a staff writer for Blaze News.