Vol. 2, No. 22 (November 15, 2009)
Azerbaijan serves as bridge among religions and peoples
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy
Azerbaijan’s tradition of religious tolerance, when compared to the situation found in many countries in the region, and its location at the crossroads of various faiths, many of whom often lack either a venue or an opportunity for conversations with those of other denominations, were highlighted at an international conference in Baku November 6-7 on “Inter-Religious Dialogue: From Mutual Understanding to Joint Cooperation.”
Timed to coincide with the 60th birthday and 30th year in office of Sheikh ul-Islam Allahshhukur Pashazade, the head of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) of the Caucasus and leader of the inter-religious council of the Commonwealth of Independent States, the meeting attracted the leaders of various faiths not only from the CIS but from Iran and other countries as well.
Among the religious leaders attending were Kirill, Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow and All-Russia, Iliya II, Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia, Metropolitan Filaret of Belarus, Talgat Tajuddin, chairman of the Central MSD of the Russian Federation, Ravil Gainutdin, chairman of the Council of Muftis of Russia, Mufti Osmankhan Alimov of Uzbekistan, and Sheikh Mohammed Ali Tashiri, the chairman of the administration for inter-faith rapprochement of the Islamic Republic of Iran. And among the political ones were Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev, Daghestan President Mukhu Aliyev, and Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov.
Some of these political leaders came from pairs of countries that have serious political problems with each other, but religious leaders from them praised the importance of inter-religious dialogue in its own terms and for the role that it can play in opening dialogue leading to the resolution of political problems as well. Thus, both Russia’s Kirill and Georgia’s Iliya used the Baku meeting for conversations that the political leaders of their countries are unable to take part in.
Perhaps the most interesting comment on these possibilities, however, came from Sheikh Mohammed Ali Tashiri of Iran. Speaking at the Iranian Cultural Center in Baku, Tashiri said that “Azerbaijan’s contribution to the development of Islam is great” and consequently “it is important to have such conferences in Azerbaijan.” Indeed, he continued, “if Azerbaijan’s authority among Islamic countries increases, it will benefit the entire Islamic world” because “we must lead interfaith dialogue both within Islam and outside Islam” in order that Muslims “do not isolate themselves from world culture” (Jafarov 2009).
But both the direction and tone of the conference were set by President Aliyev. In his address to the participants, the Azerbaijani leader stressed that “Azerbaijan is part of the Islamic world, and the Azerbaijani people are attached to their religious and national traditions” but at the same time that Azerbaijan is a member of many European organizations as well. As a result, Azerbaijanis today are proud of the fact that unlike many countries, they have been able, while remaining true to their own traditions, to do “everything possible for the normal life and activity of representatives” of all nations and faiths. 
Part of the reason for the latter fact reflects its geographical location and longstanding tradition of “religious tolerance” within the country, but President Aliyev continued, it is also “the logical result of the policy of the independent Azerbaijani state,” which has sought to create a situation in which “all nations [of the country] live as a single family, actively working on behalf of the development of Azerbaijan and, as worthy citizens of the country, contributing to the all-sided development of our country.”
“After the restoration of state independence,” he told the meeting, “all freedoms, including the freedom of conscience and religious freedoms have been guaranteed in Azerbaijan.” More than 1,000 mosques have been built, “hundreds of historical-religious monuments” restored, and many Orthodox and Catholic churches and synagogues have been built or reconstructed. “This is a very large part of our policy.”
At the conclusion of the conference, participants adopted a resolution recognizing the importance of Baku in such conversations among people of different faiths and re-committing themselves, in the words of Sheikh ul-Islam Allahshukur Pashazade, to “quickly move from dialogue and mutual understanding to direct cooperation.” 
 See http://www.day.az/news/society/180103.html (accessed 12 November 2009).
 See http://www.day.az/news/politics/180200.html (accessed 12 November 2009).
Jafarov, T. (2009) “Azerbaijan becoming Islamic bridge: Iranian Inter-religious Rapprochement Committee,” Trend News, 6 November, available at: http://en.trend.az/news/society/religion/1574688.html (accessed 12 November 2009).