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 Thursday, May 13 2021 14:11
Marianna Mkrtchyan

Azerbaijan and Turkey on Special Watch List in 2020 International  Religious Freedom Report

Azerbaijan and Turkey on Special Watch List in 2020 International  Religious Freedom Report

ArmInfo.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 United States Commission on International  Religious Freedom (USCIRF) 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.

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.   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.


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