When we, as religious leaders of the Jewish, Christian Orthodox and Muslim communities in our country, hear in the international media that our nation is involved in a “holy war” in which “Christians are in danger”, it is time for us to raise our voice.
We may be of different faiths, but we all have one nationality – Azerbaijan – and our country, we are told, is playing the role in this fictitious religious war that is often reserved for Islam.
The escalating conflict that the world is experiencing between Armenia and Azerbaijan is neither of a religious nature, as much as others may wish it to be, nor does Azerbaijan play the role of the “Muslim invader” in the international imagination. We are a multi-religious, multi-ethnic country with a flourishing Ashkenazi Jewish community, our own unique Jewish mountain community and Christians of Catholic, Orthodox and Armenian tradition. Even Islam does not have a single branch, and among our fellow citizens are both Sunni and Shia.
Armenia is undoubtedly a Christian nation. Today it is even more so than 30 years ago, when – during the conflict of 1988-94, which led to the Armenian occupation of Azerbaijani territory – more than 300,000 Azerbaijanis, mostly Muslims, were expelled from Armenia as refugees.
In this war also 700,000 Azerbaijanis were expelled from Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding areas, which are still occupied by our neighbor, although they are internationally recognized as within the borders of our country.
Azerbaijan does not play the role of an invader – neither as a Muslim nor in any other way – which was chosen for us. Where once Armenian and Russian Orthodox churches flourished next to mosques, today in Nagorno-Kharabakh only Armenian churches are open. Other churches have been rebuilt, damaged or demolished. Nevertheless, Azerbaijan has shown that it can have churches, synagogues and mosques in the same cities and towns, all of which function peacefully.
What Azerbaijan is offering is not the expulsion of those who now live in Nagorno-Karabakh, but the return of those who were once expelled themselves. Our country offers the chance of autonomy within the legal borders of Azerbaijan for those who want to live there in peace with different religions, cultures and ethnic groups. What is offered is a return – only now with reconstruction and more determination and commitment to building mutual understanding.
We have worked to bring together almost a whole generation, and in recent weeks even more, as members and communities of the Abrahamic faiths. The Chief Rabbi visited and prayed with Jewish families in the residential districts of Ganja, the second city of Azerbaijan, when it was attacked by rockets. The Archbishop conducted a funeral for a young Azerbaijani Christian soldier who had died on the battle front and was one of many from our Christian communities who served as volunteers in the armed forces. The Grand Mufti has tried to comfort the many Muslim families who have lost loved ones. We met and prayed together. It is our duty as men of faith to stand by all our peoples, whether they themselves belong to a particular faith or not.
We know that others, even those of whom the media tell us that they should be our enemies, share this duty. Only last week, Archbishop Sahag – one of the four patriarchs of the Armenian Apostolic Church – allegedly confirmed that “the tragic events in the Caucasus are not an inter-religious conflict”.
We have the hope that the world will see beyond this narrative. It is dangerous to play politics with religion – and just as dangerous is the attempt to play religions off against each other.
It does not have to be like this. For in the Torah it says: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18); in the Bible: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39); and in the Koran: “Be good to your parents, relatives, orphans, the needy, and to your neighbor who is a relative, and to your neighbor who is not a relative of yours, and to your companions” (4:36).
We prefer to leave politics to politicians. It is extremely dangerous for politicians to consider themselves extraordinary and to promote their country as such in religious terms. We ask them to stop and reconsider. They do not know what they are doing. There are rich and poor countries that are Christian, Muslim, Jewish and others that have many religious beliefs.