Born and raised in the United States, it was a blessing never to have experienced war firsthand. War was something that happened “over there”—not at home.
Certain liturgical prayers were thankfully not immediately relevant, such as, “For the freeing of our captive brothers,” following the diptychs in the Armenian Orthodox Divine Liturgy. From the perspective of peaceful Central California, who were these people for whom we offered such weekly prayers?
This changed dramatically for many when the 2020 Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) War broke out on 27 September. All of a sudden, Armenians were drawn into a conflict in which they had no interest in beginning, merely desiring to live peaceably where they had for many centuries. If only that were possible . . . .
After the first week, it was clear that this conflict would not pass as quickly or lightly as the July 2020 fighting, nor as the four day war of April 2016, and I began to contemplate going to the war zone myself. During the second week, the war affected me personally, when a friend was killed in action. Unsatisfied with the coverage of solely military operations and wounded soldiers, I decided to go and photographically document the civilian sequalae of life in shelters, casualties, and displacement. A USC-affiliated journalistic organization, Civilnet, put me on a team with a reporter they flew out from Los Angeles, along with a local videographer and driver, and we traveled to Artsakh in mid-October.
I came not only as a photographer, but with my other identities as a psychologist and deacon. As I explained to my family and friends, this move represented a convergence of previously disparate selves in a way I never expected, but perhaps should have anticipated. I offered myself to the people, to help in whatever way I could, and am confident that God was leading me.
We stayed across from a church, underneath which dozens of civilians were sheltering, along with Archbishop Pargev, priests, and deacons, who ministered to them, holding all nine daily offices of the Armenian Rite in monastic fashion. What else could they do in such circumstances, but pray unceasingly? We did not gather in the sanctuary, since it was too dangerous, but prayed with a makeshift altar on chairs and boxes in the same shelter.
One Saturday evening, as we prayed Great Vespers, complete with the overtones of Light and the Resurrection, I was deeply moved as we prayed for peace; never before had I felt such visceral prayer. Let there be no mistake: the cathedral itself was a target, and at any point we could have been bombed and buried under the ruble of the church. And serving as a deacon, I knew the litany coming toward the end of Vespers.
our parents, teachers,
travelers, the dead,
penitents, captives, sick,
those who are suffering, leaders,
enemies, those who hate us,
and whoever commanded us [to pray for them] in faith.
We prayed for our people in Azeri captivity, but also for Azeris, Turks, Syrian mercenaries—our malefactors, enemies, those who hate us and would torture us, those who might kill us at any moment. Can you imagine this?
This is our faith. This is what we do as Christians.
This was not some lofty theological goal of following the commandments of Jesus to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. These were not theoretical words, but actual prayers during a time of persecution. But what else would we do—give into hate? Jesus himself, on the cross, prayed for the forgiveness of those who despised, reviled, and were killing him. I firmly believe that these prayers are not only for those who are the objects of prayer, but for us as the subjects praying too. By praying for our enemies, we resist the temptation to return hate with hate and continue to exhort each other to live with love.
After the war, at the close of a podcast interview, Fr. Vazken Movsesian asked me what my prayer would be. I had to defer to Jesus’ words . . .
I pray that
God’s peace and love reign,
his will be done on earth as in heaven,
he provide us with everything necessary to continue living,
both physically and spiritually,
he forgive us as we forgive others,
he keep us strong in faith,
and that he deliver us from evil.
Dn. Ezras Tellalian is a graduate of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary and of St. Nersess Armenian Seminary (2009), and is currently finishing a Ph.D. in Cognitive, Social, and Developmental Psychology at The New School. His photography is available at rezras.com.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.