Azerbaijan, Turkey օn USCIRF watch list for concerns over religious freedom

Azerbaijan, Turkey օn USCIRF watch list for concerns over religious freedom

PanARMENIAN.Net - 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 by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), the Armenian Assembly of America reports.

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.

Concerns about the preservation of cultural sites in Nagorno-Karabakh are made all the more urgent by the Azerbaijani government’s history of systemically destroying indigenous Armenian heritage—acts of both warfare and historical revisionism. The Azerbaijani government has secretly destroyed a striking number of cultural and religious artifacts in the late 20th century. Within Nakhichevan alone, a historically Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan, Azerbaijani forces destroyed at least 89 medieval churches, 5,840 khachkars (Armenian cross stones) and 22,000 historical tombstones between 1997 and 2006.

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."

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