Vol. 3, No. 9 (May 01, 2010)

An event of ‘both symbolic and practical’ importance: The Baku summit of world religious leaders

Paul Goble
Publications Advisor
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy

Some 150 religious leaders from more than 30 countries around the world gathered in Baku April 26-27 for a summit meeting on “Globalization, Religion and Traditional Values,” a meeting that had immense symbolic and practical importance not only for the participants but for Azerbaijan and the world.

On the one hand, the meeting served to call attention both to Azerbaijan as a symbolic crossroads of civilizations and a land proud of its history of religious and ethnic tolerance and to the common views many religious leaders have on particular political and economic questions.  And on the other, it served as the occasion for practical work in which religious leaders from Azerbaijan and Armenia met and talked about the Karabakh conflict and the occasion for the first meeting of a UNESCO inter-religious council.

The meeting, which was organized by the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) of the Caucasus which is based in Baku, was the fourth in a series of inter-religious meetings.  The first was convened in Moscow in 2002 by the then-Patriarch Aleksiy II and Allahshukur Pashazade, the sheikh-ul-Islam.  Subsequent sessions were held in the Russian capital in 2004 and 2006.  But the current meeting both in intention and impact represented a breakthrough.

That can be seen in the welcoming speech by President Ilham Aliyev and the declaration adopted by the participants at the conclusion of the meeting and also by the two meetings that the coming together of so many religious leaders from so many different places made possible.

In his address to the religious summit, President Aliyev said that it was “an event of enormous importance,” one that calls attention to the fact that “over the course of centuries, representatives of various nationalities and various religions have lived in Azerbaijan in an atmosphere of friendship and brotherhood, as members of one family.”  In short, he said, “religious and national tolerance has a very great and glorious history in Azerbaijan.” [1]

“Azerbaijan,” the president continued, “is a natural bridge between Europe and Asia.”  It is a member of both the Organization of the Islamic Conference and a member of the Council of Europe.  “Islam is our holy religion,” he said, “but “at the same time, Azerbaijan is a country open for the entire world and one that seeks cooperation with all countries.”

Last year, President Aliyev recalled, Baku itself was “chosen the capital of Islamic culture,” and the country as a whole has “more than a thousand constantly functioning mosques.”  But at the same time, there are 11 churches, six synagogues, and other religious shrines,” a pattern that he suggested “makes us stronger.”

Because of this religious and cultural tradition, he argued, “social justice is one of the basic directions of our activity.  Of course, justice and social justice in particular are concepts which occupy a high place in any religion,” not just Islam.  And at the same time, he said, the people of Azerbaijan want “our region and the world “to become more secure,” something that meetings like the Baku summit can help promote.” 

To that end, President Aliyev said, “we must do what we can so that all conflicts will be in a short time resolved.  We must do what we can so that people will relate well one to another.  For that, the actions of politicians alone are insufficient.  There is a large role for religious leaders who enjoy in society great respect.”  And that is one of the reasons meetings like the Baku summit are so important.

Another reason this summit is so important is because its participants are grappling with “a relatively new theme for the world”—globalization, he said.  “Naturally, processes of globalization cannot pass us by.”  And “we must not under the pressure of globalization forget about our national values.  We must continue to maintain them.”

“The Azerbaijani people have a great history.  But the period of our independence is not that long,” President Aliyev said.  “Despite the fact that in earlier times Azerbaijan was not an independent country, we were able to preserve our national values and traditions.”  Azerbaijanis can do no less now that they have their own country.  And, President Aliyev said, “we want to educate the younger generation in the spirit of patriotism and national spirit and we are doing this,” even as “we successfully move toward modernization.”

The Azerbaijani leader concluded his remarks with the hope that “Baku will become one of the world centers of dialogue and development of world religions,” a perfect combination of its past and its aspiration for the future.

The other key statement emanating from the summit was a declaration adopted by the “leaders and representatives of Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist and Hindu communities from 32 countries” at the conclusion of the session concerning the ways in which religious traditions can positively interact with the processes of globalization despite the fears of many that these are antithetical phenomena. [2]

“In connection with globalization,” the declaration says, “there have been calls for turning away from the special features and integrity of cultures and religious and moving toward a syncretic system of views, toward ‘a mixing of faiths.’  But the history of the past and the beginning of the current century has shown that such an approach leads not to unification but to a still greater division of people.”

The reasons for that conclusion, the appeal says, are rooted in the impact of the new information technologies which “make interconnections among people” far easier and quicker than before.  “Contacts which earlier required trips of many months duration now can be established in a few seconds, [and] practically every religious community today is able to talk about itself in the web.  But that very possibility carries with it a serious risk: “In the common information space, ever more strongly are heard the voices of extremists, fanatics, false missionaries, inciters of war and terror, of those who call for hostility and force and who insult the feelings of those who believe differently or in general all believers.”

Moreover, despite the hopes of many, “globalization has not removed the threats to the security of states, peoples, and individuals,” the religious leaders say.  Instead, “rich countries have become richer and poor ones poorer,” and “the unjust division of world incomes is generating ever more criticism.”  Religious communities are in a position to “give an adequate answer to this challenge by offering alternative models of development of economic life, at the basis of which must be the common spiritual values of many peoples—justice, solidarity, love and respect for the individual and for centuries old traditions and cultures of our peoples.”

“Religious leaders,” the declaration says, “can make an important contribution to the resolution of world economic and social problems both at the level of macro-level international contacts and at the level of their own countries and concrete communities.”

One area where religious leaders can make a particularly important contribution, the declaration says, is in the fight against terrorism, all the more so because “people sowing death and destruction are attempting to use religious slogans to cover their goals.”  Some of them even “call themselves ‘religious activists’ and already are establishing alternative ‘theological theories,’ justifying the murder of people on religious or nationality lines.”  

Religious leaders, the declaration says, “have frequently declared that acts of terror are crimes from the point of view of any traditional faith.”  But that is not enough.  “Religious-political doctrines which justify aggressive force against peaceful people must be banned in the entire world just as Nazism has been banned in many countries.”

“At the same time,” the declaration continues, religious leaders are very much aware that “only an idea can defeat an ideal, and consequently precisely the traditional religious communities are called among to counter the distortion of religious values by the extremists and terrorists.”  That requires “not only the preservation or revival of the tradition of religious education and enlightenment but the inclusion in it of the spirit of peace and inter-religious tolerance.”

“Many in the contemporary world try to push religion to the periphery of social life,” the declaration says, by “insisting on the secular nature of the public space excluding from that any expressions of religiosity” and denying “the presence in man and society of unchanging moral values.”  This, the declaration says, “opens the way to complete moral nihilism” and ultimately the destruction of humanity.  

To counter that trend, the declaration goes on, “cooperation of traditional religious communities has become more important than ever before.”  Consequently, in the name of all those represented at the Baku summit, “we call for a world in which each state will preserve the integrity” not only of its territory but of its traditions.  And the religious leaders said, “believers” are called to play a greater role in inspiriting diplomacy toward those ends.

“At political summits,” the declaration notes, “ever more often are invited spiritual leaders, and many countries are making inter-religious dialogue one of the priorities of their policy.”  That goal is strengthened by the initiatives of the UN and UNESCO “on the development of cooperation of religious communities and their dialogue with politicians.” The leaders added that they “are convinced that an effective mechanism of dialogue with the international community will make possible the discovery of paths of overcoming the negative consequences of globalization and a change for the better of the world’s political, economic and legal arrangements.”

Consequently, the participants of the Baku Summit “call for the development of inter-religious cooperation at all levels and in all formats” and pledge “to do everything that is in our power to support peace among countries and peoples.”

As important as these ideas are, many would have ignored this meeting of the world’s religious leaders had it not been for the ways in which the Baku Summit sought to translate them into action.  On the one hand, the meeting provided the occasion for the coming together of the religious leaders of Azerbaijan and Armenia despite the Karabakh conflict, a session that at the least represented a confidence-building measure.  Armenian Patriarch Garegin not only took part in that session but met with President Ilham Aliyev and proposed holding the next such session of religious leaders in Yerevan. (A second meeting which would have involved the religious leaders of equally divided Georgia and Russia had to be postponed because of the illness of Patriarch Iliya II. [3]

And on the other, the Baku summit provided a venue for the first session of the consultative group of religious leaders as part of the UNESCO initiative, a meeting whose importance was underscored by the presence of Dendyev Badarc, the regional representative of that United Nations organization. [4] 

As a result of such activities, the meeting fully justified the statements of those like Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill that it had both “practical” and “symbolic” significance [5] as well as the claim by the organizers that “this was not a congress of ‘Tolstoyans’ but an assembly of soberly thinking people.” [6]


[1] The full text of the speech is available in English at http://www.president.az/articles.php?item_id=20100428113822765&sec_id=11 (accessed 30 April 2010).

[2] The full text of the declaration is available in Russian at http://www.patriarchia.ru/db/text/1147205.html (accessed 30 April 2010).  

[3] See http://www.newsru.com/religy/26apr2010/deklaration.html (accessed 30 April 2010).

[4] See http://www.islamrf.ru/news/world/w-news/12527/ (accessed 30 April 2010).

[5] See http://www.blagovest-info.ru/index.php?ss=2&s=3&id=33956 (sccessed 30 April 2010).

[6] See http://www.blagovest-info.ru/index.php?ss=2&s=3&id=33962 (accessed 30 April 2010).