Washington, D.C. - 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."
The report specifically cited two incidents in May 2020, in which "an individual attempted to set fire to an Armenian church" and another "scaled the gate of another Armenian church and tore down its cross."
USCIRF recommendations included adding Turkey 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), requiring a thorough review regarding the inclusion of objects that constitute the religious and cultural heritage of religious and ethnic minority communities - previously or currently residing within the territory of the Republic of Turkey - in any designated list of materials subject to import restrictions under a bilateral cultural property agreement between the United States and Turkey, and supporting cultural and educational exchanges that highlight the histories and contributions of those communities. In addition, recommendations called for the U.S. Congress to incorporate consideration of Turkey’s treatment of religious minorities and broader human rights issues into its continued evaluation of the U.S.-Turkey bilateral relationship.
"We remain deeply concerned about Azerbaijan’s ongoing desecration of Armenian cultural heritage and religious sites as well as the plight of minority communities in Turkey,” said Assembly Congressional Relations Director Mariam Khaloyan. "We look forward to seeing USCIRF's recommendations put into action.”
Established in 1972, the Armenian Assembly of America is the largest Washington-based nationwide organization promoting public understanding and awareness of Armenian issues. The Assembly is a non-partisan, 501(c)(3) tax-exempt membership organization.