The Armenian participants at the International Religious Freedom (IRF) Summit

WASHINGTON — The Eastern and Western Dioceses of the Armenian Church of North America participated in the annual International Religious Freedom (IRF) Summit January 29 through February 2, and the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, DC. The collaborative efforts helped raise public awareness about Azerbaijan’s September 2023 invasion and consequent ethnic cleansing of the indigenous Christian Armenian population of Artsakh, and the continued threats against the Republic of Armenia.

From left, Simon Maghakyan, Sonya Nersessian, Archbishop Vicken Aykazian, Jackie Abramian, Meghri Avakian, Karen Tonoyan and Tamar Purut

During and following the national gatherings, the Mother See of Holy Echmiadzin Ecumenical Director Archbishop Vicken Aykazian of the Eastern Diocese and the Western Diocese’s Artsakh Heritage Committee volunteer member and investigative researcher on Azerbaijan’s erasure of Armenian heritage, Simon Maghakyan, joined community leaders to spearhead a series of discussions on religious rights violations perpetrated against Armenians by Azerbaijan throughout 2023.

“The Western Diocese was pleased to return to Washington and partner again with the IRF Summit to spotlight critical issues concerning global religious freedoms and human rights violations, particularly those impacting the 120,000 forcibly displaced Christian Artsakh Armenians,” remarked Archbishop Hovnan Derderian, Primate of the Western Diocese.

“We are pleased that our committee continues to build greater understanding among international religious freedom stakeholders regarding the ongoing existential threats facing the Armenians, and are hopeful that our allies will be even more proactively attentive in their efforts to hold Azerbaijan accountable for their ethnic cleansing crimes. We hope there will be increased support for humanitarian aid for the Artsakh refugees as we work toward the right of safe return and preempt further aggression against the Republic of Armenia,” concluded Archbishop Derderian.

In addition to Aykazian and Maghakyan, the Diocesan delegation at the IRF Summit 2024 included freelance journalist/social justice activist Jackie Abramian, scholar Tamar Purut — who managed an information booth on Artsakh heritage — and attorney Sonya Nersessian, on behalf of the Armenian Bar Association  which has been actively involved since 2020 in the legal documentation of cultural heritage destruction and religious freedom violations.

The Armenian participants at the International Religious Freedom (IRF) Summit

Among high-profile Armenian speakers in DC during the 2024 IRF week were refugee freelance journalist Siranush Sargsyan of Artsakh, an invited speaker at a plenary panel on national security and religious liberties at the IRF Summit 2024, and the current and former ombudsmen of the Republic of Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh Gegham Stepanyan and Artak Beglaryan, who addressed the IRF Roundtable at Congress. Over a dozen representatives of various Armenian organizations and allies also attended the weeklong events in Washington D.C. dedicated to religious freedoms.

Get the Mirror in your inbox:

On January 29, Maghakyan presented in his academic capacity on religious rights violations perpetrated by Azerbaijan in Artsakh in 2023, during the Congressional “The Intersectionality of International Law, Religious Freedom, and Genocide” panel as part of the IRF Summit Congressional Advocacy Day. On January 30, Archbishop Aykazian joined international attorney Karnig Kerkonian, who earlier also participated in the January 29 Congressional panel, for a fireside chat on Capitol Hill’s Belmont Abbey College House to discuss the ongoing crisis in the Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem. Both events were organized by the newly-formed initiative called Armenian Christians for Peace.

On January 30, Maghakyan presented a talk on holy sites, religious liberties, and satellite monitoring of religious heritage erasure crimes during the IRF Summit’s Social Innovation for International Religious Freedom panel. On February 1, Aykazian, Maghakyan and Nersessian attended the National Prayer Breakfast and related gatherings.

To conclude the IRF week in Washington D.C., on February 2 Archbishop Aykazian and Maghakyan moderated a closed discussion on support for the religious freedoms of Artsakh Armenians, with internal and external stakeholder organizations. The Western Diocese discussion was hosted by the Global Peace Foundation. The discussion included ensuring the right of safe return for Artsakh refugees now living in Armenia, and the protection of Christian Armenian holy sites, including churches and cemeteries.

“Our active participation in yet another IRF week in Washington D.C. clearly demonstrated that ongoing coalition building is critical for advancing Armenian rights,” remarked Aykazian. “We are grateful to our many partners — particularly IRF Summit co-chairs Ambassador Sam Brownback and Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett, as well as the Global Peace Foundation — that gave us opportunities to spotlight the current and future status of religious freedom protections concerning all threatened communities, particularly the Armenian community, and for expressing solidarity with the forcibly displaced Armenians of Artsakh.”

“We were pleased to see the presence of key Armenian stakeholders at the many IRF week events, and our committee will continue creating opportunities for such collaborative efforts in support of our homeland and our persecuted people,” concluded Aykazian.

The Artsakh Heritage Committee was founded at the initiative of Archbishop Hovnan Derderian, Primate of the Western Diocese of the Armenian Church of North America, in the aftermath of the 2020 Artsakh war and its ongoing repercussions. The Committee consists of prominent scholars, experts, clergymen, and other key stakeholders dedicated to the cause of safeguarding Armenian cultural heritage under Azerbaijan’s newfound control.

Get the Mirror-Spectator Weekly in your inbox: