WASHINGTON — Azerbaijan and Turkey have been placed on a Special Watch List for concerns over religious freedom and cultural desecration, particularly in relation to the Armenian people, according to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) 2021 Annual Report released last month, reported the Armenian Assembly of America (Assembly).
The 108-page report recommended placing both Azerbaijan and Turkey on the “USCIRF Special Watch List” on account of egregious violations of religious freedom in both countries, including “recent violations committed amid renewed conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding territories.”
In the section on Azerbaijan, the report detailed findings in the context of active fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh in late September 2020 that “prompted serious concerns about the preservation of Armenian places of worship and other religious sites in those areas,” including the Ghazanchetsots Cathedral in Shushi, which was “targeted and shelled” by Azerbaijani forces two times, “resulting in extensive damage to that building and possibly constituting a war crime.”
Despite the November 2020 ceasefire agreement, the report stated that the “recent vandalization and destruction of Armenian cemeteries and gravestones” by Azerbaijan were documented by media outlets.
Recommendations to the U.S. Government by the USCIRF include, among others, adding Azerbaijan on the U.S. Department of State’s Special Watch List for engaging in or tolerating severe violations of religious freedom pursuant to the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), and for the U.S. Congress to hold public hearings to investigate Azerbaijan’s religious freedom and broader human rights abuses.
Key findings in Turkey regarding religious freedom conditions “continued to follow a troubling trajectory,” according to the report. Religious sites, including places of worship and cemeteries, were “subject to vandalism, damage, and, in some cases, destruction, which the government regularly fails to prevent or punish.”