Azerbaijan named among religious freedom violators by religious liberty watchdog

(Photo: USCIRF)

An independent watchdog on religious liberty has recommended Azerbaijan be listed among the State Department's "countries of particular concern" that have committed the most egregious violations of religious freedom.

In its annual report, issued Wednesday, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom also urged the addition of Kyrgyzstan to the department's second-tier "special watch list."

The report comes months after the 25th anniversary of the enactment of the International Religious Freedom Act was officially marked in October. The law created in 1998 the role of ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom and the Office of International Religious Freedom within the department and the bipartisan commission.

"USCIRF's first annual report, issued in May 2000, focused primarily on China, Russia, and Sudan," reads the introduction of the commission's 2024 Annual Report. "Today, the governments of China and Russia remain among the world's worst violators of their people's religious freedom, as well as among the most active perpetrators of cross-border repression and other malign activities abroad, including in the United States."

The nine commissioners presented the report's findings in a virtual event on Wednesday.

Commissioner Stephen Schneck said conditions in Azerbaijan had long been noted by the commission but had worsened in 2023, the year of focus for the report.

"USCIRF documented a significant and alarming increase in the number of prisoners arrested on the basis of religion or belief in Azerbaijan during the year," he said of the former Soviet republic. "In addition, authorities are regularly accused of torturing or threatening sexual violence to elicit false confessions from detainees, with those perpetrating such violence facing no accountability."

The commissioners recommended that the State Department also retain the dozen countries that are currently designated as "countries of particular concern," which the department determined are committing "systematic, egregious, and ongoing" religious freedom violations: Myanmar (which the department refers to as Burma), China, Cuba, Eritrea, Iran, Nicaragua, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

They also continued to seek the additions of Afghanistan, India, Nigeria and Vietnam to the CPC list.

Schneck said Kyrgyzstan is a first-time nominee by USCIRF for the special watch list, in part because of government targeting of Muslims who are not aligned with the interpretation of their religion preferred by the state and the labeling of peaceful religious groups as "extremist."

"In 2023, Kyrgyz authorities increasingly enforced long-standing restrictive legislation regulating religion and penalizing peaceful religious practices such as online religious expression and collective worship and possessing unauthorized religious materials," he said of the Central Asian country.

The State Department currently has designated Algeria, Azerbaijan, the Central African Republic, Comoros and Vietnam as special-watch-list countries.

The commissioners recommended that Algeria be kept on that second-tier list and that, in addition to Kyrgyzstan, these other countries be added: Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Syria, Turkey and Uzbekistan.

Their 102-page report noted global developments, including USCIRF's identification of 96 countries with blasphemy laws, which penalize religious expression and acts "deemed insulting or offensive" with the death penalty, prison sentences and fines. It also cited the destruction of religious sites in war zones and conflicts, including the oldest mosque and a convent in Gaza and churches and monasteries in the Israel-Hamas war; houses of worship in Ukraine since Russia invaded that country; and mosques and churches attacked in Sudan.

The report noted "a disturbing global rise in antisemitism and anti-Muslim hatred during 2023," early in the year and in the wake of the Israel-Hamas conflict.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the commission's outgoing chair, noted that the commission's work affects its members personally, with some of them or their families touched by the religious freedom issues they are addressing. He reiterated his thanks to the Rev. Fred Davie, USCIRF's vice chair, for joining him in leaving a delegation trip to Saudi Arabia when the rabbi was asked to remove his kippah, or yarmulke, during their visit in March.

Cooper also said all the commissioners face questions in their overseas trips about how they, as U.S. representatives, can point out others' religious freedom violations when their own country has religious hatred too.

"It's a fair question," Cooper said at the conclusion of the event announcing the report. "It's something that we each will grapple with every day. But we can also point to the fact that, as the world's greatest democracy, the way in which we deal with hate is we confront it. We don't sweep it under the rug. We don't make believe it isn't there."

© Religion News Service