Washington, D.C. - Violations of religious freedom and desecration of religious sites by Azerbaijan and Turkey, particularly relative to the Armenian people, were highlighted in the 2020 International Religious Freedom Report, released on Wednesday, May 12, 2021 by the State Department's Office of International Religious Freedom, reported the Armenian Assembly of America (Assembly). "Our promise to the world is that the Biden-Harris Administration will protect religious freedom around the world and combat all forms of religious discrimination," said Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken. In the Azerbaijan section of the report, the "intensive fighting" of the 44-day war in Nagorno-Karabakh, that lasted from September 27, 2021 to November 10, 2021, was highlighted. A Human Rights Watch report was referenced detailing two separate attacks on October 8 by Azerbaijani forces on the Holy Savior Ghazanchetsots Cathedral in Shushi. "Reporters on-site during the attack reported a drone flying overhead at the time and that the two strikes were made by high-precision missiles," the report stated. "There was reportedly no evidence the site was used for military purposes." The report also underscored concerns by Armenian officials, religious leaders and civil society representatives who expressed "concerns for the protection of Armenian cultural and religious heritage” sites in response to Azerbaijani armed forces deliberately targeting monuments of historical, religious, and cultural significance. One specific example cited was on November 14, when a person whom local media identified as Azerbaijani posted a video on Facebook showing the alleged destruction of the dome and the bell tower of the St. John the Baptist Church in Shushi. "There were also videos of soldiers desecrating and damaging the Church of Zoravor St. Astvatsatsin, including the breaking of the church’s cross," the report stated.
In Turkey's section of the report, a number of incidents against Armenians were raised, including the Supreme Court of Appeals upholding a 13.5-month sentence in January 2020 against Sevan Nisanyan, a self-exiled ethnic Armenian citizen of Turkey, for publishing “offensive words against the Prophet Muhammad that could provoke hostility."
On September 28, 2020, media outlets reported on a car convoy rally in support of Azerbaijan in front of the Armenian Apostolic Patriarchate, in Istanbul’s Kumkapi District during the Nagorno-Karabakh war. In May 2020, "security cameras caught an individual attempting to vandalize an Armenian church in Istanbul." In the same month, an "unidentified man tore the cross from the gate of the Armenian Surp Krikor Lusaravic Church in Kuzguncuk District, Istanbul."
Speaking during the U.S. Department of State press conference, Secretary Blinken stated that "religious freedom is a human right" and noted that the report, which details the status of religious freedom in almost 200 countries and territories, "reflects the collective effort of hundreds of American diplomats around the world."
Secretary Blinken remarked that the document, which underscores U.S. actions to support religious freedom worldwide, reflects on religious freedom as a "key element of an open and stable society."
"Whenever human rights are denied, it ignites tension and it breeds division," he continued. He noted that religious freedom is a right that is still out of reach for a number of countries.
"We remain deeply concerned about the plight of minority communities within Turkey as well as Azerbaijan's ongoing destruction of Armenian cultural and religious heritage sites, including reports that Azerbaijan is using Armenian gravestones to build roads," said Assembly Executive Director Bryan Ardouny. "In addition, we urge the Administration and Congress to take swift action regarding Azerbaijan's ongoing aggression against the Armenian people, including the news today that Azerbaijan violated Armenia's southeastern border when its forces advanced several miles into Armenia's Province of Syunik," Ardouny concluded.
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.