Religious tolerance in Azerbaijan
The late 20th century was marked by the collapse of socialism, alterations in the world’s political map, and the appearance and deterioration of several problems related to different spheres of public life. Due to the lack of attention to moral and ethical values and economic, ecological, and demographic issues, the problems of morality even deteriorated. Besides, the theory of the clash of civilizations based on religious differences emerged and found its supporters at that time. Some separatist groups used religious dogmas to prove themselves right in their activity.
Under such conditions, the establishment of a dialogue between nations and cultures was necessary to protect various cultures of humanity. The experience of countries and regions rich in the traditions of tolerance and patience could serve as an example of this connection. The peaceful coexistence of several nations and religious confessions in Azerbaijan is a unique pattern of tolerance.
These traditions come from ancient times. The Jews running away from the Jewish kingdom, ruined due to the occupation of Jerusalem by Babil ruler Novukhodonosur the Second (586 B.C.), found refuge on the territory of Azerbaijan. According to the historical data, Babil captured nearly 40 thousand prisoners.
The first followers of Christianity settled in Azerbaijan in the first-century A.C. They laid the foundation of the Albanian autocephaly church that later was set up there. The traditions of tolerance even strengthened with the spread of Islam on the territory of Azerbaijan. Muslim tolerance is based on the suras and citations from the holy book Koran. According to historians, Muslims displayed tolerance and patience to Judaism, Christianity, and Zoroastrian trends in the 7th-8th century.
The common fate of numerous ethnic and religious groups residing on the territory of Azerbaijan played a significant role in the establishment of solid contacts between them. Throughout its history, people living in Azerbaijan repeatedly fell under the dependence on other strong states, and the established situation obliged them to get closer despite differences in views.
The collapse of the Soviet Union turned into a challenging ordeal for traditions of religious tolerance in the region. As a result of this process, the peoples of the former union republics gained liberty of faith along with independence. Since the beginning of 1992, for 30 years, the Armenian occupation caused death to thousands of innocent people. It made millions of our compatriots flee their houses and threatened Azerbaijan’s tolerance peculiar. Though the Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict did not have a religious ground, the spiritual leader of Armenia, Vazgen the First, was in fact, one of the inciters of the separatist movement.
The irreconcilable Armenians tried to spread a myth in the international arena that Islam in Azerbaijan threatens peace. On the other hand, some forces tried to convert the Muslim population of the republic into Christianity for spreading anti-war and even pro-Armenian tendencies. No doubt that such a movement did not serve the strengthen dialogue between religions. Yet these processes could not have a decisive negative impact on relations between religious confessions. These relations improved after National Leader Heydar Aliyev had come to power.
At the international symposium on the Islamic civilization in the Caucasus, National Leader Heydar Aliyev said: “There are several religions in the world, and each occupies its specific place. Being proud of our Religion-Islam, we Azerbaijanis have never displayed a negative, hostile attitude towards other religions, never been at enmity, and never obliged other nations to practice our religion. On the whole, Islam is notable for tolerance of other religions and coexistence in conditions of mutual understanding with other religions. This process has been registered both in Azerbaijan and in the Caucasus. Christianity and Judaism existed and currently exist in Azerbaijan along with Islam. We consider people of any religion or nationality should respect other cultures, religions, and moral values and be patient with unpleasant traditions of other religions”.
All religious confessions are equal before the law and have the same status in frames of the model of state-religion relations of present-day Azerbaijan. Along with ensuring the rights of Muslims constituting the majority of the country’s citizens, the government of Azerbaijan takes care of other religions spread in the country as well. Thus, the building of the head church Djen Mironosets shut down in 1920, was delivered to the Russian Orthodox Church in 1991. All-Russia and Moscow patriarch Alexei the second, staying on visit in Azerbaijan, declared this temple holy and attached the status of the cathedral church to it on May 27, 2001. Moreover, another orthodox temple-the head church of Saint Maria was restored in the capital city in 1999-2001.
The Catholic community of our country is also attached a great deal of attention by our state. After Azerbaijan restored state independence, the Catholic community was able to resume its activities. On April 2, 1999, the state registered Baku’s Roman Catholic religious community. Also, by order of National Leader Heydar Aliyev, an area was allocated to construct a Catholic church in Baku. Consequently, a Catholic church was erected in honor of Mother Mary in one of the most beautiful parts of the country’s capital in 2007. And in 2011, the religious organization Apostolic Prefecture of the Catholic Church in the Republic of Azerbaijan was registered by the state.
In our country, Catholicism comes after Orthodoxy and Protestantism in the number of followers. Despite its small size, the Catholic community in our country takes an active part in public life and engages in charitable activities. A homeless shelter named after Mother Teresa, the Mary Education Center, and other charitable facilities operate under the Apostolic Prefecture of the Catholic Church in Azerbaijan.
Currently, there are eight places of worship (five churches, two chapels, and one prayer house) administered by the Baku and Azerbaijan Eparchy. Four of them are located in Baku, and the rest are situated in Ganja, Sumgayit, Khachmaz, and Lankaran.
The cultural heritage of the country’s Jewish community, which has ancient traditions, is also attached a great deal of attention by the government of Azerbaijan. The organization for relations between Azerbaijan and Israel and the society Soxnut has operated in the country since 1990.
When speaking about the history of Mountain Jews in our country, it is necessary to mention the Girmizi Gasaba (Red Settlement) in the Guba district. This settlement is considered a place in the post-Soviet space densely populated by Mountain Jews. Located on the left bank of the river Gudyalchay, the Girmizi Gasaba was founded in the 18th century during the Guba Khanate. The settlement earlier called the “Jewish settlement” was once famous even as the “Jerusalem of the Caucasus.”
As for the situation of the Jews in modern Azerbaijan, it should be noted that they live mainly in Baku, Ganja, and Sumgayit cities, as well as in Guba and Oghuz districts. The Jewish communities present in our country are surrounded with attention and care by the Azerbaijani state. The construction of a new synagogue for the Mountain Jews religious community of Baku at the initiative of President Ilham Aliyev is a good example of it. The synagogue, whose foundation was laid in 2010, was made available for believers in April 2011. In addition, every year, the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan congratulates the Jewish community of our country on the occasion of the Jewish New Year, i.e., the Rosh Hashanah holiday.
The Heydar Aliyev Foundation and the Ohr Avner Foundation have built the Chabad Ohr Avner Education Center for Jewish children living in Baku within the framework of the project “Azerbaijan: Address of Tolerance.” The foundation laying ceremony of the Center was held with the participation of Mehriban Aliyeva, the President of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, on May 31, 2007. The construction of the Education Center was finished in 2010. On October 4, 2010, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, his wife Mehriban Aliyeva, and Lev Leviev, the President of the Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS and the Ohr Avner Foundation, attended the grand opening of the Education Center.
Furthermore, the Hebrew language is taught at Baku State University and a secondary school No.46 named after Agabey Novruzbeyli in classes consisting of children of Jewish origin within the Russian department of the school.
It should also be noted that today the Jewish communities in Azerbaijan actively participate in public life through the Azerbaijan-Israel Friendship Society, the Jewish agency Sochnut, the major Jewish charities Joint and Vaad-I-Hetzola, the Humanitarian Association of Azerbaijan’s Jewish Women, Jewish religious schools (yeshivas), the Azerbaijan-Israel Cultural Relations Society, the women’s society Eva and other Jewish NGOs operating in the country.
According to the official website of the State Committee on Religious Associations of the Republic of Azerbaijan, there are seven synagogues and eight Jewish religious communities in the country.
Thus, in the modern age, Jews in Azerbaijan live in a tolerant environment free from anti-Semitism. This is not a coincidence because Jews have felt like equal members of the large family in our country throughout all historical periods. Even in times of rampant anti-Semitism worldwide, the people of Azerbaijan did not treat them as aliens. On the contrary, our compatriots of Jewish origin lived in an atmosphere of friendship, solidarity, and mutual understanding. The historical tolerance and patience formed in Azerbaijan had become one of the properties typical of the Azerbaijani society. It should be mentioned that the national government constantly meets with the leaders of religious communities and displays interest in their problems and needs. President Ilham Aliyev always delivers congratulating speeches on the major religious holidays of Christians and Jewish people.