The Utah Valley University (UVU) Office of Global Engagement hosted His Excellency Nasimi Aghayev, Consul General of Azerbaijan in Los Angeles on Monday, October 8, 2018. Mr. Aghayev, a senior official representative of the Republic of Azerbaijan to California and twelve other states, spoke on the efforts of Azerbaijan to foster multifaith harmony and presented a model on peaceful coexistence focused on religious cooperation. In his presentation, the Consul General described ways that Azerbaijan works with a number of religious communities both in and outside of the country to overcome interfaith challenges and promote religious diversity and civic unity.
Consul General Aghayev began his presentation by describing his country’s unique geopolitical importance, bordering Iran, Russia, Turkey, Georgia, and Armenia, and praised the long tradition of tolerance in Azerbaijan, noting the country’s grant to women and other groups of equal voting rights in 1919, which predated many other advanced countries, including the United States. The Consul General also stated that the desire for free religious expression and harmonious interfaith relations was augmented by the religious oppression experienced while under Soviet rule from 1920-1991, in which atheism was generally promoted and religious groups were persecuted.
After 1991, the Consul General stated that religious harmony became a large priority of the newly independent state. In describing the religious demographics of Azerbaijan, Consul General Aghayev emphasized the high level of religious tolerance in his country, which is uncharacteristic of other Muslim majority nations in the region. While 93% of Azerbaijan is Muslim, with 70% of those being Shiites and 30% being Sunnis, the country also is home to a number of Christians and Jews, who make up close to 5% of the population, and are able to pray, worship, and celebrate freely. The Consul General described a number of important non-Muslim religious sites in the country that predate the Republic of Azerbaijan itself, including a Zoroastrian fire temple in Baku, the nation’s capital, that has been maintained as an ode to the country’s roots as a place of religious tolerance. Additionally, the Consul General noted the early roots of Christianity with the evangelism of Bartholomew and the many old Christian churches found in Baku and throughout the country as evidence of Azerbaijan’s long history of interreligious engagement and tolerance.
Consul General Aghayev praised the strong religious dialogue of modern Azerbaijan as a model for religious diversity and civic peace that can be applied to other nations in the region and throughout the world to foster harmony, promote diversity, and coordinate interfaith efforts. Consul General Aghayev noted the high degree of religious tolerance between Azerbaijani Muslims, who do not see major differences between Shi’a and Sunni. The Consul General described the worship held at the largest mosque in the country, the Heydar Mosque, in which Sunnis and Shiites pray and worship together. Additionally, members of the two sects often intermarry, adding to the religious harmony of the country. Furthermore, Muslims and non-Muslims successfully coexist, interacting mutually in religious celebrations and civic life. The Consul General described the experience of local Jews who built a funeral tent and ceremony in the yard of a popular imam whose mother had recently passed away. Also, Pope Francis recently visited the country, citing the respect for diversity and harmony that Azerbaijan shows to religious groups, as well as the efforts of Azerbaijan to aid the Vatican in preserving catacombs and cathedrals in Europe. Furthermore, Muslims, Jews, and Christians hold offices in the government and work together, without respect of religion, to both foster religious diversity and support local religious groups and to solve local and national issues that transcend religious boundaries.
In a question and answer period, Consul General Aghayev further defined his model for multifaith harmony and peaceful coexistence. The Consul General noted that in a region of the globe that is not usually characterized by religious tolerance and acceptance, Azerbaijan became a model for such as a result of its long history of diverse religious groups living and interacting with each other, its staunch secularism, which emphasized normal relations, and its high level of education. The Consul General emphasized the 99% literacy rate in the country as key to understanding complex religious issues and working with other religions to cooperate on religious and non-religious issues. Additionally, Consul General Aghayev notes that the government of Azerbaijan often facilitates interfaith conferences and events that bring religious leaders of all faiths together. Yearly, the country hosts an interfaith conference that promotes religious leaders setting the example for coexistence, early education of youth on religious matters, and developing laws against discrimination. In particular, the Consul General noted the efforts of his government and religious leaders to coordinate efforts to shield the youth from extremism.
Consul General Aghayev presented a model of harmony and coexistence with the intention that Azerbaijan’s example be followed in other countries, especially Middle Eastern ones, who grapple with balancing religious fervor with diversity and the constraints of globalization and modernity. Reiterating the communality of Shiites and Sunnis in his country, the Consul General noted the importance of good relations by describing Azerbaijan’s geopolitical relationship with Iran, noting that the 30 million ethnic Azerbaijanis in Iran facilitate a mutual interest for normal relations. Consul General Aghayev stated that his country’s commitment to religious harmony assists in diplomatic endeavors and foreign relations in general, as the country is often a leading voice in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) on matters of Muslim prosperity and, more recently, Muslim-Israeli relations. The Consular General noted the economic cooperation Azerbaijan engages in with Israel, Iraq, India, and others to foster regional and global unity.
The visit of Consul General Nasimi Aghayev to UVU provided an important discussion of how religious groups can attempt to resolve differences and coordinate religious and secular efforts to improve local and regional relationships. The example of Azerbaijan as a regional leader in advancing constructive religious dialogue and interfaith efforts to improve civic, political, and regional issues is one that should be seriously considered by those interested in diplomacy, sustainable development, and religious relevance. Certainly, the model offered by the Consul General should be discussed as a tool that leaders and organizations can use to solve critical issues that involve and transcend religious identification. I very much appreciate the efforts of the UVU Office of Global Engagement to bring such a high-level official to our campus.
Michael Hinatsu, Political Science Major Student, Utah Valley University.
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