US puts Azerbaijan on religious freedom watchlist

France 24
Jan 5 2024

Washington (AFP) – The United States on Thursday added Azerbaijan to a watchlist on religious freedom, following fears for Christian heritage after the country seized back an ethnic Armenian enclave.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, releasing an annual index of designations, maintained all 12 countries that had been on the previous year's blacklist, including China, Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

In the sole change, Blinken added Azerbaijan to a watchlist, meaning it will join the blacklist, which carries potential sanctions, without improvements.

Energy-rich Azerbaijan, a frequent US partner, sent troops on September 19 into Nagorno-Karabakh and quickly achieved the surrender of Armenian separatist fores who had controlled the region for three decades.

In a recent recommendation to the State Department, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom pointed to concerns for the preservation of Christian religious sites in Nagorno-Karabakh, where virtually the entire population of 100,000 ethnic Armenians has fled to Armenia.

The commission also voiced alarm over regulations on all religious practice in the Shiite Muslim-majority but largely secular country under strongman President Ilham Aliyev, including a requirement that all religious groups be registered and their literature approved by an official body.

The commission, which is appointed by lawmakers but does not set US policy, was ignored by Blinken on another recommendation — blacklisting India.

The commission alleged incitement and a climate of impunity by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist government on rising attacks against religious minorities, particularly Muslims and Christians.

India has scoffed at the accusations and few had expected any action by the US government, which for years has sought warmer relations with New Delhi, seeing the fellow democracy as a bulwark against China.

Blinken in a statement noted that "significant violations of religious freedom also occur in countries that are not designated."

"Governments must end abuses such as attacks on members of religious minority communities and their places of worship," he said.

The "countries of particular concern" on the blacklist are China, Cuba, Eritrea, Iran, Myanmar, Nicaragua, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

Besides Azerbaijan, countries on the watchlist are Algeria, the Central African Republic, Comoros and Vietnam.