US puts Azerbaijan on religious freedom watchlist

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The United States on Thursday added Azerbaijan to a watchlist on religious freedom, following fears for Christian heritage after the country seized back an important enclave from Armenia.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, releasing an annual index of designations, maintained all 12 countries that had been on the previous year’s blacklist, including China, Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

In the sole change, Blinken added Azerbaijan to a watchlist, meaning it will join the blacklist, which carries potential sanctions, without improvements.

Energy-rich Azerbaijan, a frequent U.S. partner, sent troops on Sept.19 into Nagorno-Karabakh and quickly achieved the surrender of Armenian separatist forces.

In a recent recommendation to the State Department, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom pointed to concerns for the preservation of Christian religious sites in Nagorno-Karabakh.

The commission, which is appointed by lawmakers but does not set U.S. policy, was ignored by Blinken on another recommendation — blacklisting India.

The commission alleged incitement and a climate of impunity by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government on rising attacks against religious minorities, particularly Muslims and Christians.

India has scoffed at the accusations and few had expected any action by the U.S. government, which for years has sought warmer relations with New Delhi, seeing the fellow democracy as a bulwark against China.

Blinken in a statement noted that “significant violations of religious freedom also occur in countries that are not designated.”

“Governments must end abuses such as attacks on members of religious minority communities and their places of worship,” he said.

The “countries of particular concern” on the blacklist are China, Cuba, Eritrea, Iran, Myanmar, Nicaragua, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

Besides Azerbaijan, countries on the watchlist are Algeria, the Central African Republic, Comoros and Vietnam.

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