Concerns remained regarding the protection and preservation of religious and cultural heritage sites in Nagorno-Karabakh and the territories returned to Azerbaijani control following the November 2020 ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the USCIRF–recommended for special watch list.
Caucasus Heritage Watch, a research initiative supported by Cornell University, documented through satellite imagery the razing of two Armenian cemeteries and a mosque. It also catalogued several churches that appeared damaged or that researchers considered “threatened” due to nearby construction projects. And while the Azerbaijani government announced in 2020 that two soldiers would face charges for destroying Armenian gravestones, authorities have since refused to release any information regarding those cases.
It is reminded in the reports that in December, the International Court of Justice ordered Azerbaijan to “take all necessary measures to prevent and punish acts of vandalism and desecration affecting Armenian cultural heritage, including . . . churches and other places of worship . . . [and] cemeteries.” Finally, Azerbaijani military forces reportedly blocked a group of pilgrims from visiting monasteries in these areas.
According to the conclusion of the commission in 2021, religious freedom conditions in Azerbaijan generally trended negatively.
In the beginning of the year, the Azerbaijani government unexpectedly announced plans to amend the country’s restrictive 2009 law On Freedom of Religious Beliefs (religion law); these amendments passed swiftly and entered into force mid-year. Several entities, including USCIRF and the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, had previously called for the government to revise the law to guarantee the protection of freedom of religion or belief and to remove provisions that constituted violations of this right.
Prominent among those additions were requirements that the government approve the appointment of essentially all religious leaders; religious communities cease religious activity in the absence of an appointed cleric; certain categories of religious activities only take place in approved spaces; and worship and religious ceremonies only be carried out by Azerbaijani citizens, unless given express permission otherwise.
According to the Commission on International Religious Freedom, various NGOs have maintained lists of political prisoners in Azerbaijan for years. In recent years, the total number of individuals imprisoned in connection with their religious activism has continued to decrease.
The report released by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom concludes with a call to include 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).