USCIRF Concerned by Azerbaijan Religion Law Amendments, Condition of Ghazanchetsots Cathedral

Washington, DC – The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) is concerned that proposed amendments to Azerbaijan’s law “On Freedom of Religious Beliefs” would fail to address issues in the existing law, which USCIRF Commissioners raised in a delegation to the country last year. The amendments would also enact additional restrictions on religious communities.

We are disappointed to see Azerbaijan introduce new restrictions that will only serve to further circumscribe the space for the free exercise of freedom of religion or belief. We urge the Azerbaijani government to reconsider these amendments in light of its commitments to human rights,” said USCIRF Chair Anurima Bhargava. “USCIRF encourages Azerbaijan, as a participating state in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, to request a legal review of its proposed changes from the OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights.”

The amendments would introduce new, bureaucratic limitations, including restrictions on religious leaders and on the ability of religious communities to operate in the absence of a religious leader. The amendments would also require religious communities form a “religious center” to perform certain functions. At the same time, the amendments would not change current, already restrictive provisions that require official registration, limit registration to those communities that have at least 50 members, mandate state approval of all religious literature, and prohibit foreign citizens from conducting religious ceremonies.

Earlier this month, Azerbaijan’s parliament reportedly approved the amendments and submitted them to President Ilham Aliyev for his signature.

USCIRF is troubled by reports concerning the preservation and integrity of houses of worship and other religious sites—such as the Armenian Apostolic Ghazanchetsots Cathedral in Shusha, which appears to have had its domes removed amid reports of its ‘restoration’ without the input of its congregation,” USCIRF Commissioner Nadine Maenza added. “While the cathedral is certainly in need of repair following the damage it endured as a result of Azerbaijani shelling last fall, it is imperative that it and other sites are properly restored and maintained.”

In its 2021 Annual Report, USCIRF recommended that the U.S. Department of State place Azerbaijan on its Special Watch List for engaging in or tolerating severe religious freedom violations. In March, USCIRF released a country update on Azerbaijan that described problematic legislation on religion, the continued imprisonment of religious activists, and recent violations committed in the context of renewed conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.