The man sometimes called the Vatican’s “prime minister” is on a peace mission this week. But unlike the Ukraine war initiative led by the Vatican envoy Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, it probably won’t generate many headlines.
In fact, you may struggle to find any reports on it at all. As of July 11, the Vatican’s in-house media doesn’t seem to have mentioned it. And it doesn’t appear on the Twitter account of the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, the hub of the Holy See’s diplomatic activity.
But if you comb through government press releases and specialist Italian Catholic websites, you will see that Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin is currently on a trip to Azerbaijan and Armenia.
A new age of warfare
Azerbaijan is a majority Muslim country of around 10 million people. It is almost three times larger than the majority Christian Armenia, which has a population of less than three million.
Since the last years of the Cold War, the two countries have been locked in post-Soviet Eurasia’s most enduring conflict.
Fighting has broken out periodically since 1998 over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is situated within Azerbaijan but populated by ethnic Armenians. The area is home to the breakaway state known as the Republic of Artsakh, which is closely tied to Armenia.
A upsurge in violence in 2020, in which both sides used loitering munitions (also known as “kamikaze drones”), is believed to have ushered in a new era of warfare dominated by deadly autonomous machines — as seen in Ukraine today.
Hundreds of soldiers were killed in the most recent major clashes at the Armenia-Azerbaijan border in September 2022, which ended with an uneasy ceasefire.
Shortly afterward, purported environmental activists blocked the Lachin corridor, the sole road linking Armenia with Nagorno-Karabakh. Human rights groups have said that the blockade is creating a humanitarian crisis in the disputed region.
Outreach to Azerbaijan
Since his election in 2013, Pope Francis has often shown his concern over the ongoing feud between the two nations. His sensitivity to the 35-year conflict possibly dates back to his years as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, when he was said to have maintained close ties with the local Armenian community.
In 2016, Francis visited both nations on separate trips, traveling to Armenia on June 24-26 and Azerbaijan on Oct. 2. In recent months, he has repeatedly expressed his anguish over the deteriorating humanitarian situation connected to the Lachin corridor blockade.
It is against this background that Cardinal Parolin began his five-day trip to the neighboring countries.
On July 10, Parolin met with Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev. According to the president’s website, the two men reviewed the deepening of ties between Azerbaijan in the Holy See in recent years.
Steps forward have included Aliyev’s 2020 visit to the Vatican, the opening of an Azerbaijani embassy to the Holy See in 2021, and the signing that year of a cooperation agreement to restore Rome’s Catacombs of Commodilla between the Vatican and the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, a charitable body led by Azerbaijan’s First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva.
The cardinal held talks with the country’s foreign minister Jeyhun Bayramov, discussing “the peace process between Azerbaijan and Armenia and the current situation in the region,” according to the Azerbaijan State News Agency.
The agency added that Bayramov told Parolin about the situation following the 2020 conflict, known in Azerbaijan as the “44-day Patriotic War” and by neutrals as the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War (following the first in 1988-1994). The foreign minister highlighted what he called “the crimes, vandalism and destroyed cultural and religious heritage in Azerbaijan’s liberated territories,” as well as “the mine threats and other provocations committed by Armenia.”
On Monday, the cardinal also met with Sheikh Allahshukur Pashazadeh, the Grand Mufti of the Caucasus, who reportedly defended Azerbaijan against accusations that it is destroying Armenian cultural heritage.
The Shiite Muslim cleric also decried what he called “Armenian vandalism” of Azerbaijani sites — demonstrating that both sides accuse each other of attacking their patrimony.
In addition, Parolin visited the grave of Heydar Aliyev, Azerbaijan’s president from 1993 to 2003, located in the Alley of Honor, a burial site for distinguished Azerbaijanis in the capital, Baku.
Overtures to Armenia
Cardinal Parolin was expected to travel to Armenia July 11 (via neighboring Georgia), remaining there until July 13. He is likely to receive a warm welcome as Armenia — the first country in the world to formally adopt Christianity in 301 A.D. — sees the Vatican as a crucial ally in the preservation of its unique spiritual culture.
As well as meeting with political leaders, the cardinal may be received by Catholicos Karekin II, the head of the ancient Armenian Apostolic Church, which has drawn closer to Rome since 1970 through a series of joint declarations and gestures such as the addition of the Armenian St. Gregory of Narek to the list of Doctors of the Church recognized by Catholics in 2015.
Parolin is also due to lay a wreath at the Armenian Genocide Memorial Complex in the capital, Yerevan, emphasizing the Vatican’s recognition of the systematic destruction of the Armenian community in the Ottoman Empire in 1915-1917. Pope Francis has not hesitated to describe the killing of between 1.2 and 1.5 million Armenians as genocide, despite opposition from Turkey, the republic born out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire (and a close ally of Azerbaijan).
Parolin is also expected to celebrate a Mass in Gyumri, the country’s second-largest city, which will no doubt be attended by members of the minority Armenian Catholic Church, one of the 23 Eastern Catholic Churches in full communion with the pope.
Even if Parolin’s trip doesn’t produce immediate results, such as an easing of the Lachin corridor crisis, it’s likely to prove a shrewd investment of the Holy See’s diplomatic capital if — or perhaps when— Armenia and Azerbaijan take up arms again.