U.S. Religious Report Reflects Abuses In Azerbaijan

The U.S. State Department is painting a grim picture of persecution, intolerance and other negative trends in countries that are known for repressing religious minorities, in its annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 2019, TURAN's U.S. correspondent reports.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo introduced the report at a press conference on Wednesday. "While America is not a perfect nation by any means, we always strive toward that more perfect union," he told reporters.

This year's report comes just a week after President Trump signed an executive order that instructs the entire U.S. Government to prioritize religious freedom.

According to the report, the state of religious freedom remains far from perfect globally.

In many places of the world individuals "have become more familiar with religious oppression than they are with religious freedom," said Samuel Brownback, U.S. ambassador at large for international religious freedom.

"We see this particularly, it seems like, in communist countries, that communism just has difficulty abiding alongside religious freedom and freely operating religious entities... It's atheistic by nature in its organization and just can't seem to really tolerate the free expression of faith."

Speaking at a virtual briefing organised by the State Department's Foreign Press Center, Brownback said that the importance of advancing religious freedom "cannot be overstated."  "It must extend to all areas of our foreign policy. So we will continue to press forward our commitments to promote this fundamental freedom."

In Azerbaijan, the U.S. report highlights that local courts sentenced 57 of the 77 individuals detained after the July 2018 attack on the then head of the city of Ganja Executive Committee, and subsequent killing of two police officers.

"Authorities said those sentenced were part of a Shia "extremist conspiracy" that sought to undermine the constitutional order. Human rights defenders considered 48 of these individuals to be political prisoners at year's end; they also reported that in court hearings throughout the year, these individuals testified that police and other officials tortured them to coerce false confessions."

Local human rights groups and others stated the government continued to physically abuse, arrest, and imprison religious activists.

Leaders of the political opposition party Muslim Unity Movement Taleh Bagizade and Abbas Huseynov conducted hunger strikes of 16 days and 14 days respectively to protest their poor treatment by Penitentiary Services officials in Gobustan Prison.

"Human rights defenders said they considered these and other incarcerated Muslim Unity Movement members to be political prisoners. Estimates of the number of religious activists who were political prisoners or detainees ranged from 45 to 55 at the end of the year. Authorities briefly detained, fined, or warned individuals for holding unauthorized religious meetings." (Full Azerbaijan section of the report can be found here)

The U.S. religious freedom body USCIRF recently recommended Azerbaijan be added to the State Department's Special Watch List meaning it engages in 2 of 3 international standards of "systematic," "ongoing," and "egregious" religious freedom violations.

Asked about the U.S. religious body's suggestion, Brownback told TURAN's Washington correspondent that USCIRF's recommendations will be "taken into account."  The Secretary of State "has 90 days from today, the issuing of the report, to make a final determination on Countries of Particular Concern or special watchlist countries," he reminded.

Brownback also defended his recent tweet about Azerbaijani parliamentary staffer Rahim Akhundov, who was dismissed from his job due to his faith.

"Our point on this [case] is that part of religious freedom is the freedom to be able to convert, to whatever faith or no faith at all, that this is your right to be able to assess and to determine. So when people are punished for doing that, whether it's put in jail or they are denied promotion or kicked out of a job, this is against your basic religious freedom, that a person is entitled to do with their own soul what they see fit," he told TURAN's correspondent.

"Azerbaijan is also a country that I've worked with a lot over the years, that I have a great deal of respect for... It really is one of those countries we want to see and we expect more out of, because they can do it, and they've really embraced – in some cases, in places – a lot of freedoms, and we want to see that continue to grow, and we think that's the path forward," he said.

Alex Raufoglu

Washington D.C.


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