Azerbaijan Added to US List of Religious Freedom Offenders

For the first time, the United States has recognized Azerbaijan as a violator of religious freedom.

Inclusion on the State Department’s second-tier Special Watch List (SWL) subjects the oil-rich Shiite Muslim–majority nation to the possibility of economic sanctions.

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has called for the Caucasus nation’s censure each year since 2013. Created by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), USCIRF’s bipartisan yearly report evaluates “systematic, ongoing, and egregious” violations independent of US foreign policy concerns and tracks government implementation of its recommendations.

Complicating any consequences, Azerbaijan aligns with US foreign policy in certain areas: It cooperates closely with Israel, is aligned against Iran, and agreed to increase oil exports to Europe in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

In a brief statement, US secretary of state Antony Blinken kept unchanged all other 2022 designations mandated by the IRFA. Azerbaijan joins Algeria, the Central African Republic, Comoros, and Vietnam on the SWL, cited for “engaging in or tolerating severe violations of religious freedom.”

Twelve nations—China, Cuba, Eritrea, Iran, Myanmar, Nicaragua, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan—again received designations as first-tier Countries of Particular Concern (CPC).

USCIRF “welcomed” the designation of Azerbaijan. But it stated there was “no justification” for failing to follow its advice to also label India and Nigeria as CPCs.

India was first recommended from 2002–2004 as a CPC, from 2010–2019 for the SWL, and then again from 2020 onward as a CPC. Nigeria was recommended for the SWL from 2003–2008, and as a CPC since 2009.

While the State Department has never included India, former president Donald Trump listed Nigeria on the SWL in 2019 and as a CPC in 2020. President Joe Biden removed it entirely the following year.

USCIRF called for a congressional hearing over these omissions and further criticized the State Department for issuing sanction waivers for CPC violators Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.

In a statement to CT, Lilieth Whyte, public outreach chief of the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, cited three main factors.

Azerbaijan’s laws place “onerous registration requirements” on religious groups to register nationally, restricting them further in their right to worship freely and select their own clergy. The government physically abuses, arrests, and imprisons religious activists, she added, while conscientious objectors are not permitted to serve their country in accordance with their beliefs.

Not mentioned was Azerbaijan’s months-long blockade of its Armenian-populated enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh—which Armenians call “Artsakh”—which culminated in an invasion last September that displaced more than 100,000 people.

At the time, Blinken “urged” Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev to “immediately cease military actions.” In November, assistant secretary of state James O’Brien told a congressional committee that “there cannot be ‘business as usual’” in US relations.

But last December, the State Department press service clarified that cessation of interaction with Azerbaijan would be “contrary to our interests.” Instead, US policy would continue to press the country to greater respect for “human rights and fundamental freedoms,” as well as a lasting peace agreement with Armenia.

Shortly thereafter, the two nations swapped prisoners of war, announced as “tangible steps towards building confidence” in pursuit of a peace deal. Azerbaijan has stated that an agreement is close.

Zaven Khanjian, executive director of the Armenian Missionary Association of America, welcomed the State Department designation. Calling the displacement from Nagorno-Karabakh an example of “ethnic cleansing,” he also cited the erasure of Armenian heritage from areas under Azerbaijani control.

And he wants US pressure to move beyond a simple designation.

“Armenians cannot wait until the oil fields in Baku dry up,” Khanjian said, referring to the Azerbaijani capital city, “for Washington to pursue punitive measures.”

Many Armenians, however, are suspicious of the peace negotiations. Khanjian is in favor, but skeptical. His hesitation is rooted in distrust of autocratic Azerbaijan, and he believes Russian and American interests will also have to align. Still, he is praying.

One issue at stake is the return of Armenians to Nagorno-Karabakh. But Azerbaijan counters that ethnic Azeris displaced from Armenia in earlier conflicts should have their rights recognized as well. In letters sent to the United Nations, this includes the right of return westward to Armenia.

Blinken’s designation was met with a harsh response—not by the Aliyev administration, but by an association representing the displaced, formerly called the Azerbaijan Refugee Society. But one month prior to the invasion of Nagorno-Karabakh, the group changed its name to the Western Azerbaijan Community (WAC), whose website displays a map that includes the territory of Armenia.

“The US list on religious freedom has no force, no weight, and we categorically reject it,” stated the WAC, viewing it as an “arrogant” example of American hostility.

Aliyev has previously stated that Azerbaijan would return to these “historical lands,” but in vague terms amid official clarification that this does not include territorial claims.

As long as these veiled threats exist, said Craig Simonian, the Caucasus region coordinator for the World Evangelical Alliance’s Peace and Reconciliation Network, there is doubt that peace negotiations can be meaningful. Azerbaijan also continues to hold Artsakh Armenian political leaders and prisoners of war, while its troops are marshaled on the still-demarcated border.

And the language of Western Azerbaijan is “hugely aggressive,” he said, dismissed by mainstream scholars. But even so, and despite all that has happened, at least the two nations are talking.

“Reconciliation can happen,” Simonian said. “Perhaps not between governments—at least not quickly—but between those who choose to follow Christ.”

Following his nation’s placement on the SWL, Aliyev spoke to some of these directly.

Christmas is a symbol of kindness, he told Azerbaijan’s Orthodox citizens, offering holiday greetings to the mostly ethnic Russian community who follow the Eastern calendar.

“It is commendable that our Christian compatriots, taking advantage of the broad opportunities created by the exemplary relations between the state and religion, are keeping their unique traditions, language, and culture alive,” Aliyev stated. “Ethnic-religious diversity … is one of the predominant qualities of our society.”

Christians comprise roughly 3 percent of Azerbaijan’s population. USCIRF has chided it along with Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates as authoritarian nations who are “major investors” in a promotion of religious tolerance that “obscures the state’s responsibility and failure to protect and promote freedom of religion or belief for everyone.”

And USCIRF’s most recent country update stated that while Azerbaijan has stopped certain problematic practices, Protestants continue to face obstacles in registration. Not one non-Muslim community has been approved in the last three years.

It is not that bad, one Azerbaijani Christian leader told CT.

“As part of the small circle of evangelicals, I don’t see any major changes toward the churches,” he said, requesting anonymity. “We still have freedom, and I see this designation as a change in US politics.”

Azerbaijan’s Protestants primarily come from a Muslim background.

But there is legitimacy, he added, in policies regulating the Islamic religion. Official religious authorities maintain control over Shiite mosques, with hundreds of mullahs arrested for their support of Iran. Wary of extremism, the secular government keeps a tight watch on foreign preachers of any religion and requires approval of any distributed spiritual literature.

The Azerbaijani Christian then provided a few anecdotes that reveal an uneven attitude toward Christianity.

One church regularly receives approval for visiting American pastors after informing security, he said. But two foreign Christians were denied residency visas under suspicion of unregistered evangelism.

One congregation of primarily Muslim converts wished to mark its ten-year anniversary in a large public hall. The government denied the permit, telling them to celebrate privately in the church. The pastor insisted, telling them to take away his registration—threatening they would then lose contact with his house church network. With this the authorities relented, and the celebration ensued.

One former thug became a Christian and began evangelizing in a Muslim ethnic minority region. When residents complained, he was called into the police, and during interrogation he related his full spiritual testimony. Afterward, the captain told him he was free to continue and to let them know if anyone gave him trouble.

And in a humorous episode, a preacher of short stature planted a church in a border territory far from Baku. Local authorities arrested him but, without a law that forbade his evangelism, charged him instead with assault against the hulking officers. The judge asked how this was possible.

He answered: It was easy, sir. My wife held them down.

Laughing, the judge dismissed all charges.

Why then does the Christian leader remain anonymous?

“Anything political, unless 100 percent in support of the government, might be used against me,” he said. “As long as Christians have peace with the authorities, I don’t want to break the balance.”

Freedom House calls Azerbaijan “not free,” ranking the nation No. 13 from the bottom in its annual Freedom in the World report. But the nation is not currently ranked in the Open Doors World Watch List of the top 50 countries where it is hardest to follow Jesus, though in 2016 it rose as high as No. 34.

Yet for the first time, the US has grouped Azerbaijan with 4 other offending nations, following 12 countries in the first tier of violations. Will designation result in improvement for any?

“The challenges to religious freedom across the globe are structural, systemic, and deeply entrenched,” stated Blinken. “But with thoughtful, sustained commitment from those who are unwilling to accept hatred, intolerance, and persecution as the status quo, we will one day see a world where all people live with dignity and equality.”

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