On Tuesday, November 17, with participation of local and international journalists, the Tufenkian Foundation organized a final pilgrimage to St Minas church and Tsitsernavank basilica in Northern Kashatagh region of Artsakh before the Kashatagh region is ceded to Azerbaijan.
The group of pilgrims was led by Bishop Hovakim Manukyan, Primate of the Armenian Church of the United Kingdom, and included local clergy, board members, staff and friends of the Tufenkian Foundation, local congregants and several Armenians from the diaspora.
Bishop Manukyan performed a special church service in the recently renovated church of St. Minas in Hak village. Speaking to the pilgrims assembled in the church, the Bishop stated his firm belief that this would not be the last rite performed in this 17th century church and read letters addressed to the St. Minas Church written by children from his diocese who stated their hopes to come and pray in St. Minas at some time again in the future.
The St. Minas Church was restored in 2009 by the Tufenkian Foundation through a generous donation from Virginia Davies of New York. Davies was among the pilgrims who gathered in the church and shared her thoughts with the other pilgrims, expressing her concern that St. Minas and hundreds of other monuments passing to Azerbaijani control will face desecration or destruction based on Azerbaijani’s systematic program of erasure of Armenian cultural heritage. “We cannot allow this to happen. The world cannot allow the erasing of our memory, our history, our culture, our identity. We need to multiply our efforts so that these historic monuments are not eradicated from the face of the earth, the way it happened more than a hundred years ago, during the days of the Armenian Genocide,” said Davies.
Following the service, pilgrims travelled down through the visually stunning Aghavno river valley to the magnificent fourth century Tsitsernavank basilica of St. George, which was renovated and reconsecrated in 2001. The restoration of the basilica was spearheaded by Dr Carolann and George Najarian. Their generous donation, and other contributions made Tsitsernavank one of the most revered religious sites in the region. At Tsitsernavank the pilgrims were joined by a large group from area villages. Here, services were conducted by parish priest Rev. Fr. Aharon Melkumyan of the St. Gregory the Illuminator church in Goris. Following services, Rev. Fr. Melkumyan explained the story of how the church was founded and how the church was named after a relic brought back from Jerusalem by local prince.
“This pilgrimage highlights the fact that these churches and monuments are not just centuries-old stone structures but are living, breathing parts of the religious and cultural life of Armenians in the region,” stated Tufenkian Foundation Executive Director Raffi Doudaklian. “The fact that Armenians from throughout the world have worked to renovate and maintain them, and that so many diasporan Armenians participated in the pilgrimage illustrates their importance to the whole of the Armenian nation, and in fact, to world heritage.”
The Kashatagh region is a cradle of Armenian and world Christianity, with churches dating from the early 4th century. As a result of the ceasefire agreement reached on 9 November 2020, the Kashatagh region of the Republic of Artsakh is being transferred to Azerbaijan’s control.
Given Azerbaijan’s long record of defacing and destroying Armenian cultural and religious monuments, there is great concern from the international community that these important sites are at extreme risk. Beyond their intrinsic archeological, artistic and architectural value, these holy sites have continued to function as religious centers for the local populace while serving as important pilgrimage site for Armenians and other Christians from around the world.
Founded in 1999 by entrepreneur James Tufenkian, the Tufenkian Foundation has worked in Artsakh for over 15 years. Its on-the-ground efforts feature the promotion of resettlement, infrastructure, healthcare, and other development programs.