From the conversation of President of the Azerbaijan Republic Heydar Aliyev with heads of religious confessions of our country - Presidential palace, 16 November, 1999

Heydar Aliyev: You know that in 1995, the UNESCO of the UNO declared 16 November the day of constancy and tolerance by its decision. It is a very important decision with regard to democratization process that covered many countries of the globe at the end of XX century and human rights, which are put in the forefront as an essential factor. The reason for my meeting you is to briefly analyze the state of this issue in our country, to hear your point of view and express my opinion.

As you know, tolerance is a very broad concept, it covers many aspects of human relations and processes, ongoing in human society, as well as interstate, international and inter-religious relations.

I know that you, respected Sheikh Allahshukur Pashazadeh - our Department of Caucasus Moslems, Azerbaijan Christian Orthodox confession, Judaic confession of Azerbaijan and all the others carry out the activity just in this direction and attach a great importance to it.

Moreover, all of us should obviously focus more attention to the implementation of the most significant demand of our contemporaneity, respecting the UNESCO decision, which was adopted, as I said, on 16 June, 1995.

I am satisfied that in our country, in Azerbaijan, people of different nationalities live in peace and tranquility and show respect to each other. There are not any facts of disrespectful attitude of a representative of one religion to another or one confession to another. I consider it a very important achievement of our country in the conditions when very complicated processes are going on in the society, when Azerbaijan has been in the state of war with Armenia for already 12 years, when 20 percents of Azerbaijan territories are occupied by Armenian armed troops as a result of the aggression by Armenia and more than a million refugees have been banished from their residence places and when the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh that started in 1998, utterly complicated the social and political situation in the Republic, including the religious attitudes. Some people, protesting against aggression by Armenians, ran to extremism and terrorism and certainly, there were many factors conflicting with tolerance principles.

However, a very auspicious situation, I believe, have arisen in our Republic since the time that we have been able to achieve the stabilization of social and political situation in Azerbaijan starting with 1993 and sequentially strive for isolation from the society of those forces, which broke this stability and caused harm to the image of Azerbaijan and Azerbaijan people by their criminal and inhuman actions. And it is proved by the fact, that people of different nationalities, different religions and cultures live in Azerbaijan. They live in peace and harmony and there are no signs of intolerance towards one or another religion, one or another culture, as well as customs or dispositions of people living in Azerbaijan. It is a very big attainment.

As the President of Azerbaijan, I am pleased that our country preserves social and political stability, ensures friendly relations among people of various nationalities, various religions, various customs and various cultures though, as I said, it is in a complicated situation as a result of Armenian aggression and on the other hand, our country is exposed to the pressure by various outside forces. This is what we call tolerance though tolerance is a very broad concept and includes many values. I would not like to dilate on other issues now. Tolerance stipulates for elimination of conflicts, terrorism, extremism and separatism. All this is included into the tolerance concept.

But in this case, unfortunaly, starting with the time when in 1988, our Republic was subjected to the aggression by Armenia and after communist leadership of the Soviet Union committed in 1990 aggression against its people, an internal aggression, serious changes have happened in the state of public opinion in Azerbaijan. I will frankly say that up to now, for example, some people in Azerbaijan still think in such a way and attempt to suggest an idea to the population that, if you please, what happened in January, 1990, was the aggression by Russia, as a Russian soldier entered Azerbaijan, many people died in one night and blood was shed in Baku streets. Meanwhile, this is not the case. It was a time, when we were all the citizens of one state - the Soviet Union, the principle of people`s friendship existed and there was one Soviet Army where representatives of all the nations, living in the Soviet Union served, including the Azerbaijanis. Therefore, it was the Soviet Army and it was the communist regime that committed aggression against Azerbaijan.

I repeat, some people, either not understanding this or intentionally, in order to instigate international relations, tried that time and still try to present this aggression by Russia as almost the aggression by Russian people against Azerbaijan. I have always been positively against it. When it happened, I lived in Moscow and I avowedly stated my position there. Then, having returned to Azerbaijan, I always spoke of that very candidly. And today, I say as a president, that there were not any international conflicts. Nevertheless, this had an effect on some people and perhaps, on some groups of the society. In these circumstances, even involving a wrong interpretation of this event in respect to international relations, today, the relations between Azerbaijanis and Russians in Azerbaijan are the most perfect and the most excellent. Relations between Azerbaijanis and Jews are the most beautiful. Relations among Azerbaijanis, Ukrainians, Ossetins and representatives of other nations are also very satisfying. In other words, I think for example, that Azerbaijani people themselves, by their nature and by their character, possess a high sense of tolerance. And Moslem religion professed by the majority of Azerbaijan population, includes tolerance at its heart.

To tell the truth, the attempts to introduce Moslems as extremists and fundamentalists, trampling the principles of tolerance, have been lately made in various regions of the world. They are made in some Christian countries. But it is unfair.

Of course, bandits, terrorists, criminals and extremists exist among every nation and in every country. But it is in no way related to the religious origins of people or to the religious principles of these people.

Speaking of this, I cannot elaborate upon this subject very much although it is a very important and interesting subject of our present-day life. I think, that one of the most important achievements of our people and our state for last years is that we could fully eliminate not only any conflict, but also even unfriendly attitude by Azerbaijanis to other people or by Moslem religion to Christian, and vice versa, by Christian and Judaic religions to Moslem religion.

It is Azerbaijan`s reality and thereupon I think that we can fearlessly say that we successfully implement into life the appeal of the United Nations Organization, as well as of the UNESCO to strive for tolerance. At the same time, today and exactly on this day, I decided to meet you to say that what is good, is good anyway, but we have to do so that it would be good forever and tomorrow, it would be even better than today.

Certainly, international, inter-religious and inter-ethnic situation existing in Azerbaijan, is worthy of appreciation. It was attained by the efforts of everybody - Azerbaijanis, Russians, Ukrainians, Jews, as well as people of other nationalities, including our religious confessions: Islam - our main religion in Azerbaijan, Christian-Orthodox and Judaic. I think, that we have an opportunity not only to strengthen the progress achieved, but also to do a lot to demonstrate to the entire world, that a democratic, constitutional and temporal state is truly built in Azerbaijan, being a Moslem state according to the majority of its population, where the temporal society has already formed and the principle of tolerance is not only present, but also plays a dominant role.

You know, that lately, there have been several cases when our administrative bodies have taken definite administrative measures against representatives of some religions, in particular, Lutheran and Apostolic. That is, it seemed to some people that separate representatives of Baptist or some other sect attempted to proselytize a Moslem into a Christian, a Baptist, a Catholic or someone else and so on. I will frankly say, that very serious mistakes were made here.

When I learned about that, moreover, when I received letters from some congressmen of the United States of America, from a big friend of Azerbaijan, USA senator Brownback with the concern over these cases, I summoned a special sitting of the Security Council. There I heard out corresponding officials, became acquainted with the situation and gave adequate instructions. And the instructions meant that a human is free and a human`s freedom assumes freedom in all respects. We proclaimed personal liberty as a key factor of democratic society in Azerbaijan. Democratization and constitution of a democratic society and forming of a democratic society assume first of all personal freedom, freedom of a human, freedom of speech and freedom of the press, in other words, all the human freedoms, including religious freedom and liberty of conscience. A human is free and let him chose what God to pray. One cannot make a human pass from one religion to another. If a person himself inwardly wants it, no one can prohibit it to him. Am I right or not? Do you agree with me?

Answer: We agree.

Heydar Aliyev: Therefore, I took measures and gave an instruction. I consider that such mistakes will not be henceforth made.

But it does not happen among the large confessions in Azerbaijan, the leaders of which are present here. Such facts are linked with some small sects or similar groups, but it troubles some people for certain reason. In fact, some people told me that these sects attracted youth not only with this purpose, but also to charge them later on with some unseemly acts, to get them to commit crimes or to become terrorists and so on. I think that first of all, a religion will be hardly engaged in this process and secondly if it even happens, we will struggle against it, but not against freedom of conscience. Freedom of conscience is inviolable.

I speak about this fact because, you perhaps know, especially since it has already spread a little and echoes have reached me form the United States. Because I want you to know, that I hold the positions, which I have stated to you, which I swore on after I was elected the President and which I will hold thereafter. These facts cannot characterize a general state of freedom in Azerbaijan, personal freedom, freedom of conscience and a state of tolerance.

I want to say again that tolerance is a broad concept. It is not only the tolerance of religions towards each other, but also tolerance to the customs, morals and cultures of each other. As for the tolerance to cultures, tolerance here is out of the question in general. Let`s say, we may speak of the love of Azerbaijanis to Russian, western and Judaic cultures and vice versa. I know, that Baku people, citizens of Azerbaijan, who in their time moved to Israel, founded there the big "Bakinets" Society. They meet and sing Azerbaijani songs there. One can hear Azerbaijani music and mugam there. Or, I also know, that our music and our mugam are loved very much in Georgia. It is to be regretted that we are in the state of conflict with Armenia. I think, we will sometime rectify this conflict as well. I remember the time, when Azerbaijani music had even a bigger prestige in Armenia than Armenian music. Azerbaijani music was usually played at weddings and Azerbaijani dances were also performed. In general, it is far beyond the bounds of tolerance and it is already friendship, mutual influence and interaction of cultures.

All these factors, I repeat, are the positive results of longstanding inhabitation in Azerbaijan of people of different nationalities. It was not only in XX century, but also in XIX century and in historical times. But now, when Azerbaijan has been an independent state for almost 8 years, it has a special significance, as it is beyond doubt that every independent state develops and improves the principles of national culture, national language, national traditions and so on, and it is natural. But it can by no means, as is said, stand against other languages, other faiths, other religions and other customs.

I am glad that such a favorable condition exists in Azerbaijan. I repeat, it has been attained by all of us together, by our common efforts. And today, on the day of tolerance, I greet you and I want to say, that we will further continue to develop and deepen this condition. I congratulate you on the day of tolerance.

Haji Allahshukur Pashazadeh (Chair of Caucasus Moslems` Department, sheikhulislam): In the name of God, the merciful, the compassionate!

Mr. President! The fact that we have gathered here today in such a membership, witnesses not the religious confrontation, but good relations among us. These friendly relations enlarge every day. We render great assistance to each other. There are even problems, which we can eliminate having gathered together. If these problems are, for example, related to Christianity or Judaism, we solve them together.

I would say that today, there is no other country in the world, where Moslems, Christians and Jews would come together on holy days in one mosque during a divine service or sheikhulislam would make a speech at a church and say prayers. I resolutely state, that one can hardly see it in another place. No matter how many Moslem states are there among Arab countries, but it is difficult to witness there something like this today.

Even small religious communities are not set aside in Azerbaijan. For instance, the representatives of all three Jewish communities - Mountain Jews, European (Ashkenazi) Jews and Georgian Jews attend here today. All of them enjoy the freedom of consciousness rights independently notwithstanding how big a religious community is. In this field, our rights are fully guaranteed.

Today, there are some slanderous forces that try to inflame confrontation within the country and spread false information abroad on absence of freedom of consciousness in Azerbaijan. They do not want to see the democracy in our country and even our today`s life.

I have to tell you frankly, that there is no problem of Sunnites and Shiites in Azerbaijan today, while big troubles and confrontation arise in this connection in the world regions. On the whole, there is no discord among faiths in our country. All this became possible owing to Your guidance, policy, the way shown by You, as well as owing to the mentality of Azerbaijani people.

If we speak of definite sects that arrive in Azerbaijan and attitudes of separate people towards them, it is impossible to artificially turn someone into a Moslem-Shiite or Sunnite, it is not allowed by any law.

Heydar Aliyev: By force, it is not!

Haji Allahshukur Pashazadeh: Therefore, some people coming here - those supported in Europe, using difficulties faced by separate families, compel them to adopt Christianity or any other religion. Such facts exist. I do not agree with everything they say. Let us see, in which of independent states has a new diocese been founded recently? In Georgia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan or Armenia? Doesn`t the founding of a new Christian church diocese in Azerbaijan witness that there is no confrontation of Christians and Moslems, Russians and Azerbaijanis here?

In the time of 20 January events, Gorbachov put this stamp upon us because he needed to assert that Islam extremism was allegedly present here. Along with Azerbaijanis, Jews, Russians and Tatars lie in the Martyrs` Alley. We buried them together with the representatives of the Russian church. When a church representative spoke at the funeral, none of Azerbaijanis grudged. But the soviet regime headed by Gorbachov wanted to introduce us to the whole world as extremists.

Even today, there are people who try to introduce us in such a light. Such attitude to Islam exists today as well. Let the whole world know and I tell you iterating the words of my President, that we have the Koran and Allah. We are not going to follow policy of any state. We have our own Azerbaijan state, our own culture and Islam religion. We will attain the Islam ideals with our traditions and our customs. We do not need such a form Islam patronage by other states either, we do not want it.

People professing Christianity and Judaism are our brothers because The Koran requires it from us. It says that all the people, worshiping to Allah, are brothers. If we are descendants of Adam and Eve and worship to prophets Moses, Jesus and Mohammed, we are all brothers.

Mr. President, I can understand You and appreciate that You have received us and charged with strengthening this brotherhood even greater. Be confident, that inshallah, this brotherhood will continue. You have absolutely fairly mentioned that sometimes trifles happen. The key point is that we have accord, belief and worship, as well as the sacred books - the Koran, the Bible and the Gospel. Based upon this, we will inshallah realize everything, prescribed by Islam and other religions, as Allah has ordered us to be under the rays of godsent light. We promise that it will remain the same from this time onwards.

Heydar Aliyev: Thank you, Sheikh.

Bishop Aleksandr: (Bishop of Russian Orthodox Church and Baku and in-Caspian eparchy): Your Excellency, much-esteemed Mr. President!

Let me appreciate You for an opportunity to have this meeting and express my opinion on the problems of present-day religious life, existing in Azerbaijan.

It is true, that Azerbaijan people are indeed very tolerant people. I mentioned this fact in my special speech in January, this year, in Moscow, upon my creation to the bishopry of Baku and in-Caspian region. From all that we have heard here today, we may say with confidence, that this holiday - the day of tolerance, proclaimed by the UNO and UNESCO is the national holiday of Azerbaijan as well, since tolerance is a special and a distinctive feature of Azerbaijan people.

I was very glad about Your deep attention to the problems of religious life here in Azerbaijan. It could not have been otherwise. Such a wise politician as You cannot leave without attention this area of Azerbaijan people`s life either.

The events that happened during last period of time, witness first of all the fact that the government of Azerbaijan truly holds the principles of observance of freedom of consciousness and freedom of religion. The principles that many religious figures disputed over decades, are not only proclaimed on a paper in Azerbaijan, but also implemented into life and they are a real law of Azerbaijan Republic`s social life. And as a representative of the Orthodox Church in Azerbaijan, I can witness it.

Unfortunately, our religious life has been recently darkened by definite events, which were beyond the scope of the existing law. But I think the events that have occurred and brought certain discord to our life, are not fist of all related to the religious traditions, existing in the territory of Azerbaijan. Because mutual contacts of the leaders of the world traditional religions in Azerbaijan and not only of the leaders, but also of ordinary believers witness that both toleration and basic principles of legislation in this field are observed in Azerbaijan.

However, mass media attempted to give different interpretation to these events, including the events that happened in Lutheran community or elsewhere. Sometimes, they appealed to us as well, trying to get our comments over similar events. I had to answer that I was not a political commentator of mass media or a commentator of Mr. President`s actions. The President has a press secretary for that purpose. And what You have said today on these issues, proves Your deep interest in fair solution of these problems.

I should express You deep gratitude both mine and Orthodox Christian believers`and not only of Orthodox Christian believers, as we have the Christians of different denominations - Molocans, Baptists, Adventists, and all of them enjoy equal rights in the Azerbaijan Republic and the legislation of the Azerbaijan Republic regarding the freedom of religion equally concerns the representatives of various religions.

We know Mr. President, that You are going to Istanbul together with us, where many problems of today`s religious life of European and Asian states are to be solved. I call on God to bless Your work and help You to solve the problems at the summit successfully and for the benefit of Azerbaijan.

You did a lot to set in peace and raise people`s welfare here in Azerbaijan and to have basic international human legal standards be reflected in the Azerbaijan Constitution. I wish You to successfully implement the mission of an envoy of Azerbaijan people and the head of the Azerbaijan Republic at this summit in Istanbul this time too, so that Azerbaijan people would be able to make use of kind and good benefits that will be attained at this summit in Istanbul. Thank You.

Heydar Aliyev: Thank You very much.

Semyon Ikhiilov (Head of Religious Community of Mountain Jews): Much-esteemed Mr. President, Your Excellency!

We have been greatly touched that on such a day, before the departure to such a serious conference - to a summit, You have found a time to invite us and speak of the tolerance issue on the day of tolerance, announced by the UNESCO. It is a serious thing.

The rights of Jews, living in Azerbaijan, have never been restrained either by the authority or by ordinary people and we have never known what the anti-semitism is.

Everything that concerns our work is accompanied by the friendship among the major confessions, represented here today in the person of our holiest sheihkulislam Allahshukur Pashazadeh who professes Islam, His Grace, respectable father Aleksandr, professing Christianity and us - Jews, professing Judaism. It is true, that everything is so tightly interrelated in our activity at the head of our sheik, that none of the cities of the world has ever had such a friendship and solidarity. Whoever comes here - delegations of the OSCE, other organizations and even Jewish delegations from the USA, Israel and other countries, they are simply surprised, but some are even delighted. I think there is a kind of envy hidden behind it. And it is quite possible.

I want to emphasize one other aspect. If any problem or a small conflict inside any community is imminent, we gather together at the head of the sheik and immediately solve these problems. Once, You had an opportunity to say publicly: I feel quiet for the religion in Azerbaijan. If any conflict is about to happen, three of them gather, discuss and everything is put in order. You said this and it is indeed like that. Thanks God, everything turns out to be so good.

I think, none of the countries, even of the former USSR and none of the presidents will find a time for this and remember what the tolerance is, invite his religious figures and speak over this issue, moreover, before such an important visit. Of course, it is a great advantage of our President whom we believe and have always believed. We, the Jews voted for You all to a man. Why? Because the course of Your policy is clear and necessary to us. In fact, thereby we live.

We believe, that leaving for a summit to Turkey, You will come back with the same pleasure as it was when You came back for the Lisbon summit. I remember it was a great joy then and You have spoken much of that. But this time, I would like it to be even a greater joy than after the Lisbon summit. We want everything to finish for the benefit of Azerbaijan and, with the restitution of our land.

We know the Karabakh issue is the sorest point for You. It is a very complicated issue. It is clear, that it cannot be solved easily, it needs years and years. Maybe this year has come and maybe people will finally realize, that over a million people cannot live in inhuman conditions, in tents. Maybe they will understand tolerance in its good sense. I want very much this issue to be solved at last. I want very much all the people, living in Azerbaijan to believe, as we - Jews do, that the Karabakh issue will be solved in the near future and our refugees will return to their homes and hearths. I think that then, everything will get right both in cities and villages.

The key point is that You will never feel or hear, that we have a conflict, ripened on a religious ground. This has never happened and I think, will never happen, as long as such a president as You and such a respectable person as, sheikulislam Allahshukur Pashazadeh, are at the head of ours.

I am very grateful to You Mr. President. First of all, because You have always treated us equally and do not forget any holiday, be it Jewish or any other nation`s. You have always congratulated us. A case, when You passed by us at some events, not asking how we were and what news we had, has never happened. Thanks God, everything is good, and we are always proud of ourselves. The fact that You every time address us in the presence of people, including the events, where ambassadors are present, evokes our pride.

Thank You very much. Have a safe journey! God grant You to return with good news, we will meet You.

Mikhail Bekker (Head of European Jews` Community): Your Excellency, dear Heydar Aliyevich! The community of European Jews congratulates You on awarding You with Mustafa Kemal Ataturk International prize of peace. It is an undoubted recognition of Your outstanding merits as a political leader and an undoubted recognition of international authority of our state.

We appreciate You for wise and balanced national policy. You know that European Jews were persecuted in different countries for a long time. And we could find a real motherland only in Azerbaijan - the country where Jews have always been treated with kind heart.

Azerbaijan was and will always be a multinational state. The representatives of different nations lived and will always live in Azerbaijan. And we do not have to learn the tolerance, we know that Azerbaijan people were always tolerant to other nations. We have simply to develop these traditions of friendship and cooperation among different nations, different confessions and different cultures.

You have spoken about the "Bakinets" Society. Yes, we had such a symbiotic circle, such a nation, named "Bakinets" formed. It seems to me, that there is no such an example anywhere else. It might be also Odessit in the territory of former Soviet Union and, as I have said, Bakinets. These two nationalities excite respect in the world countries. Jews have established the "Bakinets" Society because they really remember Baku and really want to help Azerbaijan and help with all the possible existing means and forces.

I have read the newspapers of "Bakinets" Society. I have read newspapers printed in New-York and other places of the United States. Now, I am writing a book of the Jews in Azerbaijan and collect materials. I have those papers in my home. And everybody has very friendly and very warm attitude towards Azerbaijan people who have the same attitude to everybody. Azerbaijan people always treated well other people and always understood the will of other people, and it is very important for us, Jews, as we have often suffered and therefore, we understand the hardships of others.

We believe, that there will be peace in our region. And as soon as the peace is established, prosperity will start not only in Azerbaijan, but also in other countries that are close to us. The prosperity of all the societies and all the communities in the territory of Azerbaijan will start. And we will get the splash of culture, science and art, which Azerbaijan has always been so famed for. We hope, that it will happen.

We want to wish You a safe journey to Istanbul, great success and we want peace to come at last in our region. Thank You very much for everything.

Mark Palagashvili (Head of Georgian Jews` Community): Much respected Heydar Aliyevich, I, as always have very short time left to speak. We, including me, appreciate You very much that we are here, meeting You and hearing Your congratulations. We also have got very much to say. In any case, I want such meetings to be an etalon, an example for other states. Let everyone look at us, envy and somehow resemble. It will be one of our prides.

I was born in Baku and have never experienced any excesses, extremism, anti-semitism and so on for my 65 years. Therefore, I once again express You my deep appreciation on behalf of Georgian Jews of Azerbaijan, as well as I hope, that we will not stop half-way and will always progress.

I wish You a good journey and implementation of those initiatives and those wishes, which our republic needs. Thank You very much.

Heydar Aliyev: Thank You, respected friends, first of all for Your very valuable opinions and, in particular, about the state of religion in Azerbaijan and social and political state in our country.

I know, that you always uphold our course and keep the position of objectivity and justice. In other words, you do not do it blindly, but support our course from the position of objectivity and justice. I am sure, that we will henceforth cooperate in the same way.

I am satisfied, that today, we have an opportunity to meet. You have correctly mentioned, that tomorrow I am flying to Istanbul. There are a lot of issues. I do not have even a minute and I did not have it in preceding days either. But yesterday, when I looked at a calendar and saw, that it was the day of tolerance today, I charged our staff to try to gather you for meeting. I was told, that sheikhulislam was leaving abroad. I said let him wait for a day if possible and we would meet, as we needed to meet just on this day, talk and tell each other the words we have said today.

I do everything to reinforce the state security of Azerbaijan. It means peace. I do everything to solve peacefully - by the way, the key factor of tolerance is peace - the Armenian-Azerbaijan conflict, to liberate occupied territories and to return our citizens-Azerbaijanis to their native land. I do and I will do it and I hope, that I will be able to attain the assigned task. We have always enjoyed both your support and your prayers. I think, that Your prayers today, on the eve of my visit to Istanbul, to an OSCE summit, will help me to resolve these and many other issues.

Thank you very much. I wish you good health. Give my cordial regards to your religious communities - Moslems, Christians and Jews, as well as to other communities. Thank you.

"Bakinskiy rabochiy" newspaper, 17 November, 1999.