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Multiculturalism, Tolerance Azerbaijan's State Policy: Ombudsman Responds to US State Department's Report

By Yaver Kazimbeyli January 10, 2024

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The Amaras monastery complex in Khojavand, the Karabakh (Garabagh) region, Azerbaijan / Courtesy

The Human Rights Commissioner (Ombudsman) of Azerbaijan, Sabina Aliyeva has rejected the statements about the country in a recent report issued by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).

In a statement on Tuesday, Aliyeva said historically, people practicing various religions lived in peaceful and friendly co-existence in Azerbaijan where multiculturalism and tolerance have been promoted as a state policy that fostered exemplary interreligious dialogue.

"From a religious perspective, Azerbaijan is one of the most tolerant countries in the world, where an exemplary model of multiculturalism and inter-religious dialogue has been established, and cases of antisemitism and religious discrimination do not exist. Along with mosques, Catholic and Orthodox churches, including the Armenian church, and Jewish synagogues operate in our country as places of worship for believers," reads the statement.

Aliyeva stated that the information contained in the report about Azerbaijan has no basis and does not reflect responsible, realistic, and fact-based analysis. She said the document is backed by a biased policy to create an unfavourable attitude towards Azerbaijan across the world.

In a statement on January 14, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken designated Algeria, Azerbaijan, the Central African Republic, Comoros, and Vietnam as Special Watch List countries for engaging in or tolerating violations of religious freedom.

The statement came on the heels of the report by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) on the concerns about the preservation of Christian religious sites in the Karabakh (Garabagh) region of Azerbaijan, following the one-day local anti-terror measures in September last year.

A large portion of the Armenian residents left the Karabakh region voluntarily after the restoration of Azerbaijan’s sovereignty over the entire region despite Baku’s persistent calls to stay and reintegrate. The Azerbaijani government transferred the national migration and social protection services to the Karabakh region shortly after ousting the illegal Armenian separatist regime. Moreover, an online portal for the reintegration of Armenian residents into Azerbaijani society was launched to facilitate the process.

A reporter for Al Jazeera said in October that the Armenians of the Karabakh region stated they have not been forced out of their houses and have not faced any human rights abuses by the Azerbaijani side.

The Christian religious monuments in the Karabakh region were put under immediate protection by the Azerbaijani government after the Armenians refused to stay and practice their religious beliefs like dozens of other ethnic minorities in the country. The Interior Ministry of Azerbaijan stationed special police guards to ensure the security and protection of the religious sites.

Azerbaijan’s Culture Ministry inscribed all Christian monuments in the Karabakh region in the list of monuments of national importance and supported the state-run campaign to restore the religious heritage in the liberated lands. On November 14, 2020, President Aliyev said Azerbaijan would properly protect the Christian temples located in the Karabakh and East Zangezur regions, and Christians living in the country would be able to use these temples.

After the liberation of its territories from the Armenian occupation in 2020, Azerbaijan has been rehabilitating the monuments of the Christian heritage in the Karabakh region, which are the legacy of Caucasian Albania, an ancient Azerbaijani state, and the estate of the Russian Orthodoxy, and unambiguously rejecting any statement claiming it to belong to the Armenian Gregorian Church.

According to data compiled by the Azerbaijani government, before the occupation of the Karabakh region by Armenia, along with dozens of mosques, there were 139 places of worship and temples, of which 128 were Albanian temples and monasteries and three Orthodox temples.

Armenia and Azerbaijan had been in an armed conflict for nearly 30 years over the Karabakh region, which is an internationally recognized territory of Azerbaijan. Armenia launched full-blown military aggression against Azerbaijan following the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991. The bloody war lasted until a ceasefire in 1994 and resulted in Armenia occupying 20 percent of Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized territories. Over 30,000 Azerbaijanis were killed and one million expelled from those lands in a brutal ethnic cleansing campaign conducted by Armenia.

On September 27, 2020, the decades-old conflict took a violent turn after Armenia’s forces deployed in the occupied Azerbaijani lands shelled military positions and civilian settlements of Azerbaijan. During the counter-attack operation that lasted 44 days, Azerbaijani forces liberated about 300 settlements, including the cities of Jabrayil, Fuzuli, Zangilan, Gubadli, and Shusha, from nearly 30 years of illegal Armenian occupation. The war ended in a tripartite statement signed on November 10, 2020, by Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia. Under the statement, Armenia also returned the occupied Aghdam, Kalbajar, and Lachin districts to Azerbaijan.

Certain parts of the Karabakh region, including the city of Khankendi, and some parts of the Khojaly and Khojavand districts remained within the temporary monitoring zone of the Russian peacekeeping mission after the 2020 war.

Despite the legally binding demands on the withdrawal of the Armenian forces from the Karabakh region, the largest portion of the troops was stationed in Khankendi along with the other settlements, including Khojaly, Aghdara, Khojavand, and Asgaran. The peacekeepers failed to enforce the withdrawal despite their relevant obligations.

Since 2020, the Armenian army formations committed dozens of provocations, causing loss of life on the Azerbaijani side.

Azerbaijan Armed Forces launched on September 19 local anti-terrorist measures to neutralize illegal Armenian armed formations and their military infrastructure in the Karabakh region. By the time of the cessation of hostilities, the Azerbaijani military disabled artillery systems, radio-electronic warfare, military equipment, ammunition depots, military strongholds, and shelters of the Armenian army formations stationed in the Karabakh region.

On September 20, the illegal separatist regime requested through the Russian peacekeeping command to cease the local anti-terror activities by agreeing to withdrawal and complete disarmament of the Armenian armed formations.

On September 28, the separatist regime in the Karabakh region announced self-dissolution and called on the Armenian residents of the Karabakh region to become acquainted with the conditions of reintegration presented by Azerbaijan, to subsequently make an independent and individual decision on the possibility of staying in (or returning to) the Karabakh region.

President Aliyev hoisted the state flag of Azerbaijan in Khankendi on October 15.