In upcoming months, Pope Francis will visit South Caucasus. The Vatican announced last month that Francis will visit Armenia from the 24th until 26th of June, while yesterday, just a day after the ceasefire was agreed in Nagorno-Karabakh, another formal visit has been declared. Francis will visit Azerbaijan and Georgia in the autumn.
On 2nd April overnight, after years of frozen conflict, the situation between Armenian and Azerbaijanis in the Nagorno-Karabakh suddenly escalated into a violent fighting, characterised by an unprecedented intensity since 1994, when the last ceasefire was established in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.
Nagorno-Karabakh seceded from Azerbaijan and proclaimed self-independent in 1991, after the dissolution of the USSR. Enclave of Azerbaijan, it is inhabited mostly by Armenians (95%). As a result, one of the bloodiest conflicts in the Caucasus broke out, with 30,000 victims and more than a million refugees, which occurred without any effective action by the international community, distracted by the contemporary crisis in the Balkans.
After two decades of impasse, intertwined by some improvised moments of violence, such as in August 2014, the Armenian-Azerbaijani is once more the major threat to balance in the South Caucasus. Last week, Armenian-backed separatists and Azerbaijanis soldiers have been in a deadlock of shelling and artillery strikes for four days over the region, which strengthen fears of a further escalation.
In addition to mutual accusations for failing to comply with the ceasefire, the two governments continue giving different and contradictory information on the results of the military action. During the past week dozens has been killed in the fighting. However, for the time being, official figures state that there are around 30 victims. These estimates are likely to increase, given the intensity of the fighting and the use of heavy military structures. It remains unknown the real number of civilian casualties.
As the EU has been rather invisible in any diplomatic efforts to avoid an escalation, Russia has taken the lead and, although it has a strong bias for its ally Armenia, proposed to act as mediator.
Georgia fears that Russia would need to send troops and armament across its territory to landlocked Armenia in case of bigger military conflict.
While announcing the trip schedule, which will supposedly take place from 30th September to 2nd October, the Vatican did not make any reference to the conflict.
Nevertheless, very few Roman Catholics are present in the Region. Azerbaijan is populated around 95% by Muslim while over 80% of Georgians are Eastern Orthodox Christians. Even Armenia, a country that Francis will visit next June, has very few Catholics, as over 90% of the population is Oriental Orthodox Christians.
Francis’s trip risks upsetting Turkey in case the Pope again described the massacre of Christian Armenians during World War One as“genocide”.