Response to religious “watch list”, Azerbaijan’s religious diversity

Rachel Brooks

March 22, 2021 


Image credit: “A last look at the Church of Kish- getting here was a real torture” by shankar s. is licensed under CC BY 2.0. The Church of Kish in Sheki, Azerbaijan stands as a reminder that Azerbaijan has many well-preserved Christian relics within its borders. 

In response to the piece in Asbarez News regarding United States Commission on International Religious Freedom’s recommendation to place Azerbaijan on a “religious freedom” watch list. Despite the rhetoric of Azerbaijan’s “religious intolerance” the nation boasts the largest ethnic Jewish community outside of Israel, called the Red Village, as well as a robust Judeo-Christian population amid a Shia Muslim majority.

 The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has recommended to the U.S. State Department Azerbaijan be placed on a religious freedom “watch list.” 

Asbarez Armenia wrote regarding this on Monday. The recommendation is that the State Department place Azerbaijan on a “special watch list” for its “ongoing and systemic religious freedom violations.” The outlet and the institution did not give a citation for specific religious freedom violations. 

In regards to the “systemic” and “ongoing” nature of Azerbaijan’s alleged religious freedom violations, the nation is the only truly secular Shia Muslim majority nation. The majority of Azerbaijanis are Shia Muslim, with at least 60 percent of Azerbaijani Muslims practicing the Shia sect of the religion.

 However, Azerbaijan is also religiously diverse, boasting the largest exclusively Jewish community outside of Israel. It has been nicknamed  “the Jerusalem of the Caucasus,” was previously known as the “Jewish Village”, the “Red Village” incorporates the largest practicing religious and ethnic Jewish community in the Muslim world.

Roundtable Recap: History of Muslims, Christians & Jews in Azerbaijan


In addition to Jewish believers, Azerbaijan also prides itself in a large community of Orthodox Christians. The Christian church has deep roots in Azerbaijan, with the history of the Christian Albanians, who were once merged with the Armenian church. The Caucasian Albanians are ancestors of the Udi tribes and their church was a separate sect of Christians. The Armenian Church and the Udi Christian church formally parted ways in the 19th century citing fundamental disagreements. 


Despite these facts, institutions such as the Human Rights Watch continued to investigate instances of churches damaged in the Second Karabakh war as crimes against religion, and war crimes. 


The report highlights that during the renewed conflict in Nagorno Karabakh in 2020, the Ghazanchetsots Cathedral in Shushi was hit twice by Azerbaijani forces. In December, Human Rights Watch concluded that the attack was intentional, constituting a war crime that should be investigated and prosecuted,” wrote Asbarez News. Asbarez referred to a release by the Human Rights Watch in December 2020. This came after Aliyev had accused Human Rights Watch and the BBC of spreading disinformation regarding the conflict, and historic buildings that were damaged during the fighting. Aliyev had told the BBC that the attack on Ghazanchetsots was being investigated after it took place, and was believed to have been a mistake of the Azerbaijani artillery regiment. 

Interview with the Chairman of the Albanian-Udi Christian religious community of the Republic of Azerbaijan

Voice of America News quoted Aliyev’s BBC interview in a report that described the departure of the ethnic Armenians who had settled in the Karabakh during the Armenian occupation. 

 “You are here in Baku, probably you have seen Armenian church in the city center which we restored and we keep thousands of Armenian books,” he said. “If we are destroying churches as Armenians say, why didn’t we destroy it here in Baku?,” as he was quoted by VOA news. 

 Armenia likewise accused Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev of falsely promising to the Russian government to protect the Christian relics in the Karabakh and over the fighting line in Armenia.

Despite this continued rhetoric, Azerbaijan continues to host relics of a multicultural religious past, taking its name as “the land of fire” from Zoroastrians of old. Likewise, Azerbaijan of the present and coming future appears poised to continue on the path of the religious diversity it has always harbored as a transregional highway of the South Caucasus.