of the State Committee on Religious Associations
on the special report published by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) in 2023 regarding Azerbaijan and the U.S. State Department's designation our country as a so-called ‘special watch list country’
We strongly condemn the latest report of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), as well as the statement of the US State Department. We assure you that the US State Department's designation of our country in a group with no international status (special watch list) referred to assumptions about the violation of religious freedom in Azerbaijan is nothing more than a means of political manipulation.
Every year since 2013, in its reports, USCIRF has recommended to the State Department to designate Azerbaijan by the Secretary of State as one of the countries included in the "special watch list" with the claim that religious freedoms are violated in our country, and has spread biased and false information against Azerbaijan. As the State Committee, relevant statements have been made many times regarding the reports issued by this Commission, and our position regarding the fictitious and hearsay issues they have shown, which are not based on any facts, has been brought to attention at various levels. Also, objection was expressed with official letters and the inaccuracy and bias of the issues raised in the report item by item was brought to their attention. At the same time, the leading Muslim and non-Muslim communities in Azerbaijan issued special statements on the protest against regarding the latest and previous reports and sent them to the Commission, as well as various religious figures made individually similar statements in the press media.
The "flaws" presented by the USCIRF do not reflect the reality in our country, they are in a complete contradiction with the fact. It is worth noting that many points are not investigated and USCIRF took its cue for the reports from the unfree and traditionally pro-Armenian sources. Thus, sometimes, events are being commented advisedly wrong. This seriously undermines the objectivity of the reports, which generally does not correspond to the goals and objectives expressed in their preparation.
Today, the main task targeted by the state of Azerbaijan, including the State Committee, is to ensure people's freedom of religious belief based on the principle of the rule of law. Preventing threats to people's rights and freedom, as well as public and state security in the religious sphere is an important issue in ensuring this freedom.
Whilst it has been expressed concern about the condition of the so-called Armenian monuments in the liberated territories of Azerbaijan, a tolerant approach felt on vandalism committed against Muslim monuments in the report. At the same time, we urge the USCIRF Commissioners not to allow the use of legally non-existent, politically biased and manipulative names when referring to our territories. Thus, there is no administrative territorial unit in Azerbaijan called "Nagorno-Karabakh". There are Karabakh and Eastern Zangezur economic zones.
Regarding the monuments, we did not come across any information of the said organization about the historical, cultural and religious monuments in our territories when were under the occupation of the Armenian armed forces. Although the state of Azerbaijan has always appealed to the world community regarding the vandalism of the historical, cultural and religious monuments belonging to our people in those territories by the Armenian armed forces. It was provided evidence on even turning our mosques into stables, putting them in an unusable condition, appropriating them under the name of renovation, Armenianizing monuments belonging to the heritage of Caucasian Albania, which was the ancient state of Azerbaijan, as well as allowing insulting acts against human remains in Muslim cemeteries and other such of cases.
As you know, the situation has completely changed after the 44-day war in 2020. With the end of the occupation, the monuments, including the condition of the religious temples and how they turned into ruins was unvailed. Only 2 out of 67 mosques have been preserved. Among them, the Aghdam Juma Mosque is in a useless condition as a military landmark, and the Yukhari Govhar Agha Mosque in Shusha is partially useful, and they tried to present it as an Iranian mosque in order to present themselves as a "tolerant" to the world. The rest of them were completely destroyed by the armed forces of Armenia. But we have not yet observed the intention of the world community to investigate it objectively. Despite it, Azerbaijan has preserved the Armenian-Gregorian church in the center of Baku, even thousands of books in the Armenian language.
Although the United Nations mission in Karabakh, which ended in October 2023, reported that "no cultural or religious structures were damaged", it is surprising that the report of the commission is so sceptical towards the report of the highest international organization through the claims of some unknown human rights institutions.
This issue was not noted in the State Department’s statement or report.
At the same time, the Armenian lobby actively participates in anti-Azerbaijani campaigns. The involvement of a biased Armenian employee in the commission's staff proves its essence once again.
In reality, the religious condition in Azerbaijan...
Since the period when Azerbaijan regained its independence, some foreign circles have been interested in creating groups to spread radical and extremist religious ideas to our country. In Azerbaijan, progressive innovations are taking place every year in the religious field, in ensuring people's freedom of religious belief. The legislative framework is constantly improved, reformed and supported for the activities of religious communities. It’s known that financial aid has been allocated to religious denominations in the country every year by the government under the presidential decree, and the scope of this assistance is extended to all religious communities, including non-Muslim communities. The Heydar Aliyev Foundation restores historical and cultural monuments and builds new places of worship. When President Ilham Aliyev and First Vice-President Mehriban Aliyeva visit the regions, they always visit places of worship located in that area, speak to believers and listen to them.
At the same time, religious monuments in the territories liberated from occupation were taken under special control by the head of state. Without exception, instructions were given for the restoration of religious places of worship located in those areas. Some mosques and churches destroyed in Shusha have already been restored. A cleric has been appointed to the Yukhari Govharaga Mosque in Shusha city.
We should also state that for many years, financial assistance has been provided to clergymen by the state. Their social projects are being fund. Dozens of conferences reflecting tolerance, coexistence and other events are jointly organized. Last year visits to Guba, Ismailli, Kalbajar and other regions were organized by the Bible Society and other non-Muslim communities with the participation of representatives of religious denominations operating in Azerbaijan. Such visits strengthen friendship and cohesion between communities.
Important measures are being done to develop and spread Azerbaijan's traditions of multiculturalism and tolerance to the world. We recall that for this purpose, the State Committee has organized conferences called "Interreligious harmony for the sake of global peace and security" in Washington D.C., USA, and "Promotion of interreligious and intercultural dialogue for a safer world" in Brussels, Belgium, in 2022. Moreover, measures are being taken to expand opportunities for cooperation with international institutions, including the aforementioned organization of the United States, meetings are held with their leaders and specialists at various levels and opinions exchange are being held.
Thus, the State Department makes statements about the religious condition in different countries based on these reports every year. It should be noted that, despite the Commission's recommendations for 10 years, until 04.01.2024, Azerbaijan have not been designated by the Department as "Special Watch List" country (Algeria, the Central African Republic, Comoros, and Vietnam along with Azerbaijan were designated as Special Watch List countries).
We believe that all these points are one of the biased steps taken against our country by those who cannot accept the successful steps towards the restoration of territorial integrity and sovereignty of Azerbaijan. One of the countries that should be "watched" from a religious point of view is Armenia and the United States themselves. Nevertheless, those who support Armenians turn blind eye upon their acts and attack Azerbaijan in lieu. No one can hide the facts of persecution of representatives of different religions in monoethnic Armenia. It is a biased approach to designate Azerbaijan as a so-called Special Watch List country whilst everyone knows that it is Armenia that has committed acts of vandalism against both Muslim and other religious monuments, including Caucasian Albanian sites, during the occupation of 20 percent of our territory for around 30 years.
It is well known to everyone how many incidents have happened against Muslims and other religious communities, as well as against blacks in the United States itself. According to data from US human rights activists, in 2021, 1005 criminal acts committed against Jews and Muslims on the grounds of religious intolerance were recorded in the United States. Also, in 2022, 6720 Muslims were undergone to religious discrimination. Reports of anti-Islamic mood which reached to alarming levels represent just a minor segment of American realities.
Thus, the attempt of the Commission and the State Department to influence the independent policy of Azerbaijan by ignoring the vandalism committed against Muslim monuments is unacceptable. It’s beyond argument that it harms US-Azerbaijani relations.
Taking this opportunity, State Committee recommends the State Department not to bring grist to the pro-Armenian circles’ mill that are smearing Azerbaijan, as well as to avoid double standards and to take steps in accordance with international legal norms based on the new realities that have arisen in the region.