The US maintains a list of countries in which it believes are “particularly severe violations of religious freedom”, which it defines as “systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom”. The list of “Countries of Particular Concern” is headed by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the State Department, and is advised by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.
The list is released annually, and usually the same countries end up on it. However, this year the list welcomes a new nation to its ranks – Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan was recommended by the Commission to be added to the list after concerns arose regarding the safety of a multitude of Armenian religious/cultural sites in Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh), which Azerbaijan completed its capture of in September/October of 2023.
Artsakh holds within it a number of Armenian religious and cultural sites, including the Amaras Monastery, which was the first ever Armenian school built, originally completing construction in the 4th century. Azerbaijan’s capture of Artsakh, which had been operating independently but was internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, saw the exodus of virtually Artsakh’s entire population of 120,000 Armenians.
The commission also recommended Azerbaijan to the list for the nations’ general religious restrictions which require all religious groups be registered, and their literature be government approved.
The list is organized into two parts. One being “Countries of Particular Concern”, which is the more severe part of the list. Countries on this section of the list have had sanctions placed against them before as a result of religious persecutions. Presently, the Countries of Particular Concern are: Myanmar, People’s Republic of China, Cuba, Eritrea, Iran, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.
The list also maintains a shorter listing of countries that are on a “Special Watchlist”. For countries on this watchlist, if their religious freedom does not improve, will be moved to the Countries of Particular Concern, and may be subject to sanctions for it.
Destruction of Armenian Religious Sites by Azerbaijan
There have been a large number of documented cases of Armenian religious/cultural sites being altered, damaged, or destroyed by Azerbaijan, some of which will be shown below.
In 2020 after the 44-Day war, or the 2nd Nagorno-Karabakh war, footage began to emerge of Azeri soldiers standing on top of the Zoravor Surb Astvatsatsin (Mother of God) Church in Mekhakavan, Artsakh, celebrating after they had taken the town.
Azerbaijanis Disrespecting An Armenian Church In Occupied Artsakh, Standing On The Cross They Broke, Praising Allah. pic.twitter.com/JXzsSShOO6
— Zartonk Media (@ZartonkMedia) November 14, 2020
In 2021, BBC journalist Jonah Fisher went to the town in order to discover what had become of the church, only to find it had been completely destroyed.
A similar scene can be shown with the Surb Sargis church in Mokhrenes, which was also seized in the 2020 44-Day war.
The destruction of the Surb Sargis church notably took place long after it was seized by Azerbaijan. The Surb Sargis church was constructed between the 18th and 19th century.
More recently, video footage of Stepanakert, the formal capital of Artsakh, shows that the crosses have been removed from atop the Holy Mother of God Cathedral, located within the city.
Stepanakert fell into Azeri hands in October, after the exodus of Artsakh’s 120,000 Armenians, 70,000 of whom lived in Stepanakert.