When we think about religious tolerance and peaceful coexistence between members of different religions, we usually think of wealthy and prosperous countries such as Canada, Australia, or Sweden, where immense religious diversity and high level of care for citizens’ rights prevent tensions between religious groups from arising. However, reality is slightly different. Latest studies conducted on this topic has revealed as well as various international documents has recognized that Azerbaijan, a much smaller and younger nation, has achieved such a high level of religious tolerance, so much so that it surpasses most advanced and wealthy countries in both the East and the West. According to some, Azerbaijan is among five of the most religiously tolerant countries in the world.
Today Azerbaijan is one of the rare countries with a combination of mosques, churches and synagogues and does not demonstrate discrimination towards different faiths. Foreigners who are shown mosques, churches and synagogues located side by side in the Center of Baku (the capital of Azerbaijan) or in the distance of 150 meters in Guba (a western province in of Azerbaijan) cannot hide their surprise. The Azerbaijanis have always differed for their tolerance – not only in the Orient, but all over the world.
Azerbaijani model constitutes a role model for the Muslim world, therefore it is most important to make the added value of such peaceful co-existence visible for all of us. This might be helpful for the problematic countries of the Middle East and might also contribute to fight Islamophobia in Western countries. Though 96% of Azerbaijani population is Muslim, Azerbaijan is a secular republic where the state is entirely separated from religion.
The Azerbaijani Constitution outlaws any type of political, racial, ethnic, national, cultural, religious, or sexual persecution in Article 109, and in 1992, a specific amendment of “Freedom of Faith and Religion” was passed to reinforce the concept of religious tolerance. Today, Azerbaijan is home to many ethnic and religious groups. One of the most numerous religious minorities in Azerbaijan are Jews, who have considered Azerbaijan a welcoming home for a long time.
The biggest Jewish groups in Azerbaijan are currently Juhuro, Ashkenazi, and Gurjim, and there are also small Jewish populations throughout the country. The first synagogue was built in Azerbaijan in 1862, and the number of Jewish temples is rapidly growing since then. In 1919, soon after the creation of Azerbaijani Democratic Republic in 1918, the Jewish National University opened in Azerbaijan and offered classes in Yiddish, Juhuri, and Ibrani, the most popular languages spoken by Azerbaijani Jews at that time. According to the population census conducted in Azerbaijan in 2002, 8,900 Jews currently live in Azerbaijan as citizens.
Another interesting religious minority group in Azerbaijan is the Udis, who live in a village of Nij near the city of Qabala. The Udis are an ancient ethnic group that has dwelled in the Caucasus Mountains since 5 BC. There are only a few thousand Udis in the world today, and the majority, approximately 4,000 of them, live in Azerbaijan. The Udis practice Eastern Orthodox Christianity and have preserved their language and their unique calendar. According to Paul Steele, a British researcher who has visited the village, the Udis are proud to have been able to preserve their community and are grateful and happy that the Azerbaijani authorities and people have treated them with tolerance, friendliness, and assisted them in preserving their language, religion, and ethnic identity.
Besides being home to the Udis, Azerbaijan also hosts seven towns that were founded by 194 Swabian German families primarily from Reutlingen, who fled Napoleon’s invasion and moved to Azerbaijan in 1818 and 1819. Almost two centuries later, the Swabian Germans still live in those towns, have their own churches, and remain closely attached to their German and Protestant identities. Similarly, Molokan Russians, who belong to a rare branch of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, were persecuted in Russia and fled to religiously tolerant Azerbaijan in the 1820s . Free from Russian persecution, they are able to enjoy their religious freedom in Azerbaijan up to today, with their own towns and churches, and with their faith, language, and traditions highly valued and respected by the Muslim Azerbaijani majority.
Today, about 500 Molokans call Azerbaijan their home. Although the population of Azerbaijan is just nine million people, and the country itself is only 86.6 thousands square kilometers, it has an impressive, kaleidoscopic diversity of religions and nationalities coexisting in peace with the Muslim Azerbaijani majority. Praised for its tolerance by the European Parliament,
Azerbaijan doubtlessly sets a positive example of multi-culturalism, friendliness, and hospitality to the world. When we think about religious tolerance and peaceful coexistence between members of different religions, we usually think of wealthy and prosperous countries such as Canada, Australia, or Sweden, where immense religious diversity and high level of care for citizens’ rights prevent tensions between religious groups from arising.
As the tolerance is the true moral value of our nation, the Azerbaijani government has always supported and paid attention to this matter. According to President Ilham Aliyev, representatives of different nations and religions have lived in peace and tranquility in Azerbaijan throughout centuries: “Never ever was there any discrimination in the national or religious ground in Azerbaijan; there will never be so. All people living in Azerbaijan are our dear citizens. I am confident that the reigning religious endurance, religious tolerance can be studied elsewhere.
It should be noted that the country’s leadership frequently meets with the leaders of religious communities and is interested in their needs and problems. A unique experience of Azerbaijan in the field of inter-religious dialogue and cooperation has been highly recognized and appreciated by foreign politicians, diplomats and officials of international organizations. An obvious example of this was the historical visit of the former head of the Roman Catholic Church John Paul II in May 2002. While being in Baku, the Pontiff especially noted the historical tradition of tolerance in Azerbaijan.
Rabii Marc Dworkin, the head of American-Jewish Committee (AJC) of Orange Earldom of State of California considers that Azerbaijan can play an important role in the Jewish-Muslim dialogue and in the establishment of the cooperation in the Middle East. “We need the moderate voices to crack down on those who are interested in its disintegrating more than the maintenance of the harmony and cooperation of nations. As an example of tolerance, Azerbaijan can help to create pattern for cooperation in Jewish-Muslim dialogue and the Middle East, as well as in the whole world”.
Azerbaijan is a very good example of tolerance for the world”, expressed his satisfaction with the relationship with the Jewish community. Protection of ethnic and cultural diversity, interethnic and inter-state relations in the country are regulated on the basis of civilized norms. Numerous measures are taken in the field of further strengthen of tolerance as well.
Azerbaijan has paid a special attention to historical and religious monuments and to construction of new worship houses and supported this work as much as possible. This process is also of great importance for the construction and restoration covers not only mosques but also temples of other religions. The construction of the Catholic Church, the reconstruction and restoration of Russian-Orthodox Head Cathedral Church, as well as the Saint Mary Catholic Church, the thorough restoration of Kish temple, which belongs to cultural and historical heritage of Caucasian Albania, opening of one of the region’s largest synagogues resonated both in Azerbaijan and abroad.
The serious and sensible approach of the Azerbaijani people to tolerance proceeds in fact not only from the cultural memory but also by a desire to build a healthy future. A society with principles of tolerance, with religion and intercultural dialogue, most importantly with protection of political and social stability, can demonstrate rapid development.
It should also be noted that the continuation of the Armenian aggressive policy, occupation of 20 percent of Azerbaijani territory, the existence of over one million refugees and internally displaced persons, destruction of occupied historical and religious monuments generate serious problems for establishment of peace and stability, as well as for the strengthening of the traditions of tolerance, formation of inter-religious formation not only in Azerbaijan, but also in the whole region.
However, the historically established tradition of tolerance is continuing at the state level and the traditions are enriched by new qualities over time. Thus, the religious monuments of the nation that carried out the occupation in Azerbaijan are protected. The Armenian Church in Baku “Grigori Lusarovich” has been taken to the state’s protection.Currently, books and manuscripts in the Armenian language are preserved there. While our religious monuments were vandalized by the Armenians, the Armenian Church in Baku was restored and protected by Azerbaijani authorities in a civilized manner. Demonstrating tolerance in the European arena is extremely important. The Azerbaijani tolerance is quite interesting for elite of old religious and national traditions of other countries.