Azerbaijan`s system of government, based on secular state institutions, is a rare example in a Muslim-majority country. Preserving secular nature and values of the country is a priority for the government. Azerbaijan has been the first secular Muslim republic, established in 1918, before the Soviet invasion.
According to the State Committee on Religious Associations (previously, it was called the State Committee for Work with Religious Organizations), Muslims constitute 96% of the population, of whom 65% are Shia and 35% are Sunni. This distinction is nothing more than a nominal one for the vast majority of the population. Even if Islam is the dominant belief, other faiths like Christianity and Judaism have centuries old history of representation in Azerbaijan. In this regard, Azerbaijan is one of the few Muslim countries where Jews are perfectly integrated within the society and no antisemitism has been experienced so far.
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In order to show the uniqueness of Azerbaijani tolerance, it should be timely to show examples. The new Baku synagogue for mountain Jews was built in 2011 with financial support coming from the state and sheikh of the Caucasus Muslims Board. Another example of Azerbaijani religious tolerance is ceremony of dedication of a new Torah scroll was attended by Muslim, Russian Orthodox Christian, Albanian-Udi Christian and Catholic leaders. These are the example of brotherhood and mutual respect in the land of tolerance.
From religious tolerance point of view, Azerbaijan has a highly symbolic value, both for the Muslim world and for the West, as a “secular, western-oriented and pluralistic Shia Muslim society” (Cornell, 2011). To spread the idea of peace and tolerance not only within the country but also, in the world, Azerbaijani government and religious communities are working hard together. In this respect, Azerbaijan is actively cooperating with international bodies such as European Union (EU), United Nations and etc. aimed at countering terrorism, violent extremism and hate speech while a close cooperation between them is contributing to the stability of the region, protection of religious freedom and solidarity.
As a result of fruitful cooperation between European Union and Azerbaijan, exchange of good example of peaceful coexistence and interfaith dialogue with our western partner as a new priority has been included to the agenda.
EU is interested in learning Azerbaijani case as a secular country of Muslim majority. The two-day visit of Azerbaijani delegation of religious leaders (representatives of Sunni, Shia and Russian Orthodox Church communities) to the Brussels by the invitation of EU (on June 27-28, 2018) was the first step of cooperation in the area of religious affairs.
According to the program of the visit, Azerbaijani delegation held several meetings with high representatives of EU. On June 27, clergy delegation from Azerbaijan met with Ms. Asuncion Sanchez Ruiz, Desk Officer for Relations with Azerbaijan, Mr.Jari Haapala from Directorate-General for Neighborhood and Enlargement (DG NEAR), group delegation of European People`s Party chaired by Jan Olbrycht co-chair of the working group on religious dialogue, Sajjad Karim, chair of the South Caucasus Delegation. During the meeting representatives of EU emphasized that the EU`s bilateral relations with Azerbaijan are based on the EU-Azerbaijan Partnership and Cooperation Agreement in force since 1999. It was added that in February 2017, the EU and Azerbaijan began negotiations on a new framework agreement with Azerbaijan designed to give new impetus to political dialogue and mutually beneficial cooperation. Also, Mr.Jari Hapaala highlighted that Azerbaijan actively cooperates with EU via Twinning tool. 46 Twinning projects have been implemented with the ministries and public institutions of the Azerbaijan.
Thus, successful policy of state-religion relations leads to the development of interfaith and intercultural dialogue. Religious tolerance has been observed as a main element of solidarity in the country. During the meeting Azerbaijani delegation informed the representatives about challenges that Azerbaijani government faces. Religious literacy among clergy is lacking. In order to increase level of religious literacy, Institute of Theology was established under the auspice of the State Committee on Religious Associations. It is believed that the institution will help to reduce religious illiteracy in the country.
Mr.Jean Christophe Belliard, Deputy Secretary General for Political Affairs of the European External Action Service met with the Azerbaijani delegation and expressed that Azerbaijan is a good example of managing cultural diversity. It uttered that Azerbaijan can be an excellent model for both Muslim and Western worlds in this regard. The occupation of Azerbaijani land by Armenian armed forces and continuation of occupation creates threat to the stability and peace in the region. It has been acknowledged that role of religious leaders in the peaceful resolution of the conflict is important. In this regard, Caucasus Muslims Board initiated a trilateral meeting in Moscow in 2017 where religious leaders from Azerbaijan, Russia and Armenia attended to contribute the peaceful resolution of the conflict. Unfortunately, no initiative has been conducted by the Armenian religious leader(s) since the conflict between two countries started. I believe that this is a fact says a lot about peaceful mindset of the Azerbaijani people.
During the second day, delegation attended in the presentations on “Rights of religious freedom and “Counter radicalization efforts” conducted by Ms. Mercedes Gracia Perez, Head of Human Rights Division of Directorate-General for International Cooperation and Development and A. Doktereeas from the European External Action Service respectively. Member of religious delegation from Azerbaijan stressed that rights to religious freedom guaranteed in Azerbaijan as representation of different religious communities in the delegation is a clear example of it.
It should be concluded that the visit of Azerbaijani delegation will contribute to the cooperation between EU and Azerbaijan. Religious affairs have been set up as the priority for further cooperation between parties. It is widely believed that Azerbaijani model of multiculturalism and a successful policy of state-religion relations can be a good contribution to handle issues emerging from cultural and religious difference in Europe.