A conference on “Religious tolerance: the culture of coexistence in Azerbaijan” in Paris

September 8, 2015

A conference on “Religious tolerance: the culture of coexistence in Azerbaijan” was organized within the project “Azerbaijan in the heart of Paris”, held with the organizational support of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, September 8. 


Azerbaijan’s First Lady, President of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation Mehriban Aliyeva attended the conference.


At the conference, mayor of the 1st Arrondissement of Paris Jean Francois Legaret underscored the urgency of the issue of tolerance on the world’s agenda. Bringing to attention that the approach shown by Azerbaijan towards this issue of world importance was of exemplary nature, he said: 


- Ladies and Gentlemen. First of all, I would like to thank all of you for your participation in such a significant event. I take pride in participation of Mehriban Aliyeva, the head of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, in this event. At this event, we will hold exchange of opinions and discuss different proposals concerning moral and political issues. I would like to say that no concept is superior over others, all ideas should rely on cognition and common sense. Thank you.


The host of the conference, eminent political scientist Pierre Conesa mentioned that the issue of tolerance has always been urgent in the French society and, talking about the significance of the steps made by Azerbaijan in this field, said: 


- Dear Friends. Tolerance is one of the  primary issues in France. We are very much concerned about this issue. I am of the opinion that the issue of tolerance in Azerbaijan should be paid attention. We need to know how this young  country happened to achieve its political choice in such a short span of time. Close relations with this country should be looked at today. For this reason, today we are going to talk about the religious tolerance and the experiences of France and Azerbaijan. There are a lot of representatives of both the countries here today. After the address by Mrs Aliyeva, we are going to embark on discussions.


Mehriban Aliyeva addressed the conference.


Pierre Conesa thanked Mehriban Aliyeva for the address: Mrs Aliyeva, thank You for such comprehensive presentation of your country. You have been directing the religious diversity in your country in a very original and wise fashion. 


Chairperson of the State Committee for Work with Religious Entities Mubariz Gourbanly mentioned that the principle of Azerbaijan’s being a secular state has been stipulated in our Constitution adopted in 1995, and that it included the relations between religion and the state. He noted that one of the key elements of tolerance in  today’s Azerbaijan is it’s becoming a state policy.


Mubariz Gourbanly gave information about the State Committee for Work with Religious Entities established in 2001, and brought to attention that traditional religious communities are enjoying multilateral support, and no discrimination is allowed between them. The speaker said the Heydar Aliyev Foundation has made significant contributions to strengthening the tolerant environment in our country further. 


Pierre Conesa: Today we are going to discuss different religious, political and cultural issues. As a Frenchman, the condition in Azerbaijan is interesting for me. For centuries, Jews have lived and been living here in peaceful conditions, without having been subjected to any persecution. I’m not an expert in this sphere. But this fact should become a subject of discussion. How does this phenomenon occur? Secondly, there was no clashes in Azerbaijan, and how this coexistence is secured is also interesting. The third issue is how the communities are represented both in the parliament and the State Committee for Work with Religious Entities. In my opinion, in this matter too, Azerbaijan’s experience may be discussed. 


France’s senior rabbi Haim Korsia said there was no problem in Azerbaijan with regard to religion, and noted that in a number of countries, people are subjected to discrimination because of their beliefs. Haim Korsia said:


- It becomes known from the speeches that there is no problem in Azerbaijan related to religion. And we are told here that we have to be  Jewish at home, French outdoors.  


In his speech, head of the Azerbaijani Mountain Jews Milikh Yevdayev said the  Azerbaijani and Jewish peoples have always demonstrated a good sample of coexistence. He said:


- For centuries, the mountain Jews have  been living in Azerbaijan. We have been enjoying  friendly and  brotherlyrelations with the people of Azerbaijan for centuries. Our mentalities became identical. But we have our own Torah, prophet Moses and our own national moral values.  Azerbaijan has been living and developing with its own national moral values. A little before, the respected rabbi said we have faced such a fact that indoors we are Jewish, outdoor French. But this is not the case in Azerbaijan. We are Jewish both indoors and outdoors. We walk with this kippah both indoors and outdoors. We say “Shema Israel” indoors, and are not afraid to say it outdoors.  


I want to mention that now there are 7 synagogues, two Jewish secondary schools, one “Ishiva” college, three kindergartens and a Jewish House functioning in Azerbaijan. During all these years, we have shared the Azerbaijani people’s joyous days. 


In difficult days too, we have been together. Recent years, when Azerbaijan was subjected to aggression, we also had martyrs. We have our national heroes like Albert Agarunov. Regardless of where we are, we take pride in this.  You need to come to Azerbaijan and see with your own eyes the realities of this country. 


We have visitors from all around the world. Each year we have at least two or three groups from France. Each Saturday, we lay a Shabbat table. They were entertained to our Shabbat table.  After the table, they started singing Marseillaise. We sang together. Then I saw them get sad. I asked them why they got sad. They said they were not having such a Shabbat.


A Muslim state with no analogue in the world has built a synagogue and presented to us. And, in order to secure its maintenance, we receive annual  support. If you believe in God, believe me, this is our daily life. These are not just nice words. In the whole world, Azerbaijan is the best state for Jews. 


Representative of France’s Dogones city mosque Imam Hassan talked about religious intolerance existing all over the world, and conflicts between representatives of different religions and, noting that situation in Azerbaijan in this regard was totally different from that of other countries, he said: 


- Why there is no intolerance in Azerbaijan, there dominates tolerance? I know Azerbaijan’s history. Azerbaijan became acquainted with Islam in the 25th year of the Hijri-Gamari Calendar, in the time of Khalifa Omar. Islam was established here in the first century of the Hijri-Gamari Calendar.


Representative of France’s Jewish Institutions Jean Pierre Lalebi, delivering a speech at the conference, talked about the attitudes towards religion  in different countries. He noted that in some countries, secularity is recognized as a new religion. In Azerbaijan, it is quite contrary. Everyone follows his belief without disturbing others. Jean Pierre Lalebi said:


- I want to share my observations with you. Our organization has close ties with the Embassy of Azerbaijan, political circles of Azerbaijan, Jewish people living in Azerbaijan. I’ve made repeated visits to Azerbaijan. This is an exclusive country. Many people attending this event is of the same opinion. When I was on my last trip to Azerbaijan, I met representatives of the Jewish community. Thereafter, I met Sheikh ul-Islam. The meeting was attended by representatives of all religious communities existing in the country. I witnesses mutual respect among the community members. Sincere friendship relations exist between all communities in the country.


Catholic bishop of France’s Ivri city Dubost mentioned that, by its structure, Azerbaijan was a secular state and said, nevertheless, all religious communities here live in peaceful conditions. 


Reacting to the speeches at the conference, Mehriban Aliyeva said: 


-Dear Guests, first of all, I would like to heartily thank those conference participants who havevisited our country and talked about it in their speeches. I would like to invite each of you to visit Azerbaijan.


I would also like to express my opinion concerning some of the questions. Terrorism and radicalism have neither religion nor nationality. We should very carefully approach such a delicate matter. It should be taken into account that these words affect feelings of millions of people, and I want to repeat again that they have nothing to do with Islam. 


You put a question how this environment was achieved in Azerbaijan. Of course, historical roots here are very important. For centuries, humans have mixed together, lived amongst different cultures, and different religions. On the other hand, of course, this should be a state policy, as the state pays attention to preservation  of these traditions of tolerance. 


Another issue is, of course, solution of economic and social problems. If we pay attention, we would see that bad trends dominate in those countries where there is no stability, economic development, there is poverty, and education level is very low. 


Of course, if to look at the path our country has been on since it regained its state independence - we have regained our state independence 24 years ago – we can see the country has reached great achievements for a short span of time. For example, the poverty level in Azerbaijan ten years ago was 50 percent. Today, it is 5 percent. Unemployment level has dropped down to 5 percent. Today, the whole world is aware of how rapidly Azerbaijan’s economy is developing. 


Today, in our policy, we look at education as one of the key directions. If we look, we can see what layer of the population is tending to radicalism and extremism. Unfortunately, this layer is the youth - those young people that neither have knowledge, nor can receive education. Therefore, education is of great importance in terms of preventing radicalism, and we, in Azerbaijan, are paying much attention to it. We send our young people to foreign countries to study. We want them to see the possibilities existing all around the world. Of course, stability and economic development play a considerable role in these kind of matters. 


I want to once more underscore that tolerance has been a normal and usual lifestyle for everybody in Azerbaijan. We have never differentiated people for their national or religious identity. When getting to know a human, you even do not think what nationality he or she is, or what his or her belief is. We have always considered ourselves as one nation and, indeed, we are very happy. 


Today, we are living in such a world that it is hard to build fences, remain in your own place and keep  the achievements gained. Because, in the modern world, all processes going on around have, willy-nilly, their impact on your state. Therefore, by raising this issue, holding this conference, showing Azerbaijan’s experience to the world, we want to say that coexistence is possible. It is possible to live in the environment of friendship and mutual understanding. 


Therefore, it is of much importance for us to have Azerbaijan’s experience recognized in the world. We are ready for cooperation with many countries, including France, in this field, and we would like to have cooperation in future too. We wish this experience to be recognized in the world and widely popularized. Thank you. 


Pierre Conesa: Mrs Aliyeva, thank You for your interesting speech. Your role in securing the sound religious environment in Azerbaijan is considerable. Some of our problems may be solved , applying your country’s experience. 


At the conference, Vice-president of the French Muslims Council Tofig Septi shared his thoughts with regard to religious radicalism. He noted that struggling against radicalism is not only the business of law enforcement bodies, all communities should closely participate in this matter. Talking about this issue, Tofig Septi noted Azerbaijan’s experience and said: 


- One should make a trip to Azerbaijan in order to witness the tolerant environment dominating in this country. Azerbaijan’s experience should be used in struggling against religious radicalism. 


Representative of Valiske Jewish Association Andrey Kosmiki emphasised women’s big role in the Azerbaijani society. 


Mrs Khosla, a French citizen, emphasized Mehriban Aliyeva’s services to the development of Azerbaijan-France relations, and brought to attention the significance of tolerant coexistence in the world. 


Deputy chairperson of the Caucasian Muslims Administration Gamarkhanym Javadly underscored the contribution made by the administration, operating since 1823, in state-religion relations, and said women’s activity were also used in this process. 


UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador Evda Ser, talking about the tolerance she had witnessed while in Azerbaijan, said: 


- I have made repeated visits to this country. In Azerbaijan, I can travel freely and safely. People in Baku are sincere and affectionate. Unfortunately, it is difficult today to encounter such people in most of the countries. I’ve met with representatives of different religious communities in Azerbaijan. A tolerant spirit is felt in every step you make in this country. There are many old buildings in Azerbaijan. The state safeguards the old historical heritage.


Archbishop of the Russian Orthodox Church’s Baku and Azerbaijan Eparchy Alexander Ishein noted that all religions in Azerbaijan have equal rights and they closely partake in the society’s life. He said:


- Dear Mehriban khanum, Mister Legaret, ladies and gentlemen. Mister Fekete and I represent the Christian community of Azerbaijan. I am an Orthodox, and he relates to the Roman Catholic Church. Azerbaijan is a secular state, of course. Religion is separated from the state. But, by the constituent part, it is an Islamic country, as majority of the population follows the Islamic faith. Only a little part is Christians. However, all religions in Azerbaijan enjoy equal rights. And this is proved by the fact that  representatives of all peoples and religions have been represented in state institutes, business, education and healthcare spheres. We take much pride in this. We have mosques, temples, houses of worship, and new synagogues. New ones are inaugurated, constructed, and old ones are restored. The Heydar Aliyev Foundation has been providing great support in this matter. Very recently the Orthodox Religious and Cultural Centre was opened. It should be noted that the state has been showing extremely close attention. Every year, the Azerbaijani President congratulates religious communities on their holidays – Christians on Easter and Christmas, Muslims on Gurban, and Jewish  on Rosh Hashanah. Taking this opportunity, I would like to congratulate  the French Jews on the upcoming Rosh Hashanah. I would like to say that there are also religious-educational institutions functioning in the country. For example, the Islamic University, a Christian school in our temple and also Jewish education establishments are functioning. This is an obvious proof of with how much respect the state approaches the religious issues. 


I would like to mention one more significant trait of the Azerbaijani mentality. This is about deep respect for everyone’s religious feelings. We do not have any religiousor national blocks or streets. Representatives of different peoples and nations live in the same street, same building. There are many mixed marriages in our country. For example, if Muslims celebrate Gurban or Ramadan holidays, it means it is a holiday of all the Azerbaijani citizens, regardless of the religious or national relationship.If there is Christmas or Easter holiday, all citizens know this and congratulate each other on the holiday. Rosh Hashanah and Pesach holidays are also our general holidays. This is the real situation in the country. Thank you.


Chairperson of the Albanian-Udi community Robert Mobili, talking about the care they are  shown by the Azerbaijani state, said:


- Dear conference participants, ladies and gentlemen, religious persons.


Dear Mehriban khanum. 


Dear moderator.


Indeed, the tolerance existing  in today’s Azerbaijan is a very important topic. I represent Udis, an ancient native ethnos in Azerbaijan. It is a very interesting ethnos. They have preserved their religion and language in Azerbaijan, in a plain area. This is a phenomenon in the Christian world. They have preserved Christianity. They are heirs of the Eastern Church, Albanian Church. Udis are heirs of Christians in religious terms. Albanian Church had been an Apostolic church. Udis have preserved both the church and are performing their divine service here. 


We have had a tough time. When theCzarist Russia occupied Azerbaijan, they gave the Alban Church directly to Armenians, and we had protested against giving the Alban church directly to Echmiadzin. We had the only choice – to disclaim the church. 


These churches were restored after Azerbaijan regained its state independence. They are restored both by the state and ordinary citizens.  


We have preserved both our language and religion. How could we do this? Thanks to the environmentexisting here and the people of Azerbaijan. Thanks to them, we have gained a lot. We have schools in both Azerbaijani and Russian languages. But in these schools, we teach our ethnos in our own language. This is a sign of state care shown towards us. We have been feeling this care always. 


I do not want to take much of your time, as, in a true sense of the word, you have to come to this country and see everything yourselves. We receive numerous guests. The first guest from France was Alexander Duma, the author of “Voyage to the Caucasus. One chapter in his “Voyage to the Caucasus” is devoted to Udis. 


Chairperson of the Baku European Jews Religious Community Gennady Zerlmanovich said, the Jewish people in Azerbaijan has been surrounded by care and attention, along with representatives of other religions. Underscoring that there was no problem with Jewish people’s divine service in Azerbaijan, Zelmanovich said:


- We have always had very good relations with Azerbaijanis, and they have treated us with respect. Here arises a question – how we have built our relations. We just hold intercourse. We have already been through the phase of tolerance. We have been holding intercourse, and keep friendly relations. This term has become old long ago. I want to cite one example: We meet with respected Sheikhul-islam Allahshukur Pashazadeh and father Alexander around a simple dinner table. Also, at funeral ceremonies or if something happened, we meet representatives of all communities, and talk. All leaders see this. We not only have been enjoying tolerance, we have very good friendly relations. We congratulate heads of religious communities on birthdays and holidays. Jews, Muslims and Christians send their holiday meals to each other. This is a true relationship and friendship. 


Ordinary of the Roman Catholic Church’s Apostolic Prefecture in Azerbaijan Vladimir Fekete, underscoring the favourable conditions created for the Catholic in the country, said: 


- Dear Mehriban khanum, the mayor of the city, respected ladies and gentlemen. By nationality, I am a Slovak. But for six years I’ve been living and working in Azerbaijan. Therefore, I can express an opinion about the general situation and interreligious relations in Azerbaijan. 


The catholic church is too small. We are 500 people in total plus a few thousand foreigner coming to Azerbaijan recent years to work. Regardless of this small number, we have been enjoying the respect of the society. Thus, without any difficulty and problem, we-religious leaders- get together and discuss matters concerning enlightenment and those associated with the society. Good relations between religious leaders have their positive impact on the whole society. When Catholics see that I keep friendly relations with the archbishop of the Orthodox Church, Sheikh ul-islam respectfully invites me to Iftar, or in connection with another matter, I think, this helps the society understand, with no additional interpretation, that we have to live together. We have to love and show respect to each-other. If this is possible in Azerbaijan, I think, this would be an example for those countries where this issue has not find its solution to a sufficient extent. 


In conclusion, Mehriban Aliyeva said:


- At the end of this conference, I would like to once more  heartily thank all the participants of the conference. Mister mayor, I thank you once more. You have provided us great support both for the organization of this conference and the Azerbaijani village in the 1st Arrondissement of Paris.    


I want to thank the moderator who hosted this conference. Taking this opportunity, I want to once more express my deep respect and love for the French people. You know that I often travel to your country and each time we try to implement new projects related to our country, promote Azerbaijan better, especially in the humanitarian and cultural sphere. 


Each successful event, the great interest shown towards such events, of course, makes me happy. I want to mention that each time I come to France, I find new friends, and become acquainted with people that respect Azerbaijan and take interest in this country. And this, in turn, makes great contribution to making our countries and peoples closer to each-other.


I think today’s conference was successful. I have a suggestion, to hold the second session of the conference in Baku, Azerbaijan. I invite all of you to visit Baku. Thank you again.