An ode to Azerbaijan’s State Committee on Religious Associations for ensuring religious harmony in Azerbaijan

The State Committee on Religious Associations of the Republic of Azerbaijan (Azərbaycan Respublikası Dini Qurumlarla İş üzrə Dövlət Komitəsi), also known as State Committee for Work with Religious Organizations (SCWRO) is a governmental agency within the Cabinet of Azerbaijan which is in charge of regulation of activities of religious organizations and is also ensuring freedom of religion in Azerbaijan. Since the inception of this committee, 425 religious communities have been registered to act in Azerbaijan, with 408 being Islamic, 17 - non Islamic (9 Christian, 6 Jewish, 1 Krishna, 1-Bahá'í). This ministry is being headed by the diligent and remarkable Mr.Mubariz Gurbanli along with equally worth praising and determined Mr.Gurbanov Rafi. Mubariz Gurbanli is the Chairman of this committee and Gurbanov Rafi is the Deputy Head of the Department of International Relations at this committee. I think it won’t be a right thing to call this state committee only a committee as it has done something which is so remarkable that is beyond the work of an ordinary state committee. I would rather say its Azerbaijan’s very own “Internal Peacemaking and keeping” machine which has ensured that religious harmony and tolerance shall always prevail in Azerbaijan regardless of whether Arabs and Jews kill each other in Palestine, Russian army fights with Muslim insurgents in Northern Caucasus or Sunni and Shiite Muslims kill each other in Iraq and Syria. Azerbaijan is a country full of marvels of all sorts from beautiful landscape (which encompasses Caucasian snow-capped peaks and rivers like Aras and Kura) to being blessed with an extremely important Geo-strategic location as it is almost sandwiched between two regional political heavyweights Iran and Turkey and is also in close proximity to  Russia and other Middle Eastern countries.
Over 96% of Azerbaijan’s populace is Muslim but Azerbaijan has never been like the majority of predominantly Muslim countries today from Iran to Afghanistan where there are countless restrictions on civil liberties in the name of religion and there are despotic Mullahs who thrive on religious sectarianism. Instead of following all the above mentioned rubbish like espousing fanatic Mullahs, Azerbaijan has established new paradigms and paragons in Muslim world regarding how a country can be progressive and secular while at the same time having Islam as the dominant religion of
populace. Azerbaijan has now become the only stronghold of secularism in Muslim world as Turkey which was once a champion of secular and liberal values in Muslim world has now drifted towards Islamism under the rule of the religiously conservative AKP of Mr.Erdoğan who is the current Turkish president.
Azerbaijani government has also ensured that their country shall remain immune from Saudi Wahabism, Iranian style theocracy with autocratic Ayatollahs and also from Egyptian style Muslim brotherhood with an experimental marriage between Islamism and Politics. Azerbaijan is now not just renowned globally for its Western leaning secular government in the Muslim world but also for its almost zero levels of Anti-Semitism which is quite rare when it comes to a predominantly Muslim country as Anti-Semitism has soared to high peaks in many Muslim countries especially after the creation of Israel in 1948 and the consequent Arab-Israeli conflict. Many Muslim countries including my country Pakistan has not even recognized the existence of Jewish state but Azerbaijan has again made a remarkable difference in a highly Anti-Semitic Muslim world by defying all sorts of Anti-Semitic venom and establishing strong bilateral relations with Israel which have benefited both countries.
Azerbaijan has also allowed its Jewish community to flourish in a Muslim majority country and coexist peacefully with Azerbaijani Muslims who are tolerant of religious diversity in their country. Mountain Jews from Qırmızı Qəsəbə (Red Town) in Azerbaijani district of Quba are also experiencing a religious revival. Qırmızı Qəsəbə with a population of 3,598 is believed to be the world’s only all Jewish town outside of Israel and that too in a predominantly Muslim country right next to Iran. The red town itself was founded as a safe haven for Jews in 1742 by Fatah Ali Khan, the Muslim emir of the town of Quba, located in a relatively flat area just south of the modern day border with the Russian province of Dagestan. Christians too from different denominations and sects like Georgian and Russian Orthodox Christians and some Protestant and Catholic Christians peacefully coexist with Azeri Muslims. Churches and Synagogues are as much protected by the Azerbaijani government as Mosques are and even Azerbaijani government also renovated in 2000 two important synagogues from 1880’s in the town of Qırmızı Qəsəbə to facilitate the local Jewish populace. Jews have always been an integral part of Azerbaijani society and there are not just Jewish members of Azerbaijani parliament like Yevda Abramov (A Mountain Jew) but Jewish community has also been very consistent in giving Azerbaijan great writers (like Lev Nussimbaum aka Essad Bey who has been claimed by many as the renowned author “Kurban Said” of romantic novel “Ali and Nino” spent his childhood in Baku before the Red army invasion in 1920), philanthropists, scientists and soldiers. Sunni and Shiite Muslims also coexist peacefully in Azerbaijan unlike their Middle Eastern counterparts in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon. The Muslim population is approximately 85% Shi'a and 15% Sunni. Sunni Muslims feel as safe in a predominantly Shiite Azerbaijan as they feel in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan. Traditionally villages around Baku and Lenkoran region are being considered as strongholds of Shi'ism and some parts of northern Azerbaijan are being populated by Sunni Dagestani (Lezghian) people.
 Even Pope Francis during his visit to Azerbaijan in 2016 couldn’t hesitate from praising the religious tolerance and peaceful coexistence of Muslims, Jews and Christians in Azerbaijan. Even adherents of Baha’i faith who have often faced immense persecution in neighboring theocratic regime of Ayatollahs in  Iran, found calm and peace in the “Land of Fires” Azerbaijan. And from Azerbaijan’s glorified title “Land of Fires” I also remember and how can I forget that Azerbaijan has gained this title (according to many local traditions) because of the oil fueled fires in the temples of once-dominant Zoroastrianism which began from the lands which exist today in modern day republic of Azerbaijan. Even the name Azerbaijan which literally means “Protector of Fire” in Persian has Zoroastrian links. Today the reverence of religious and cultural customs and traditions of Zoroastrianism remains intact in Azerbaijan, and the New Year Nowruz continues to be the main holiday in the country which further reflects how Azerbaijanis haven’t forgotten their glorious past and they still do revere pre-Islamic traditions too along with Muslim religious traditions which are being followed by the majority of populace. Zoroastrian religious monuments are still present in Surakhany, Khinalyg, and Yanar Dag and they are being revered both by locals as well as by foreign tourists who flock in huge numbers every year to explore these historical gems of Azerbaijan. This clearly reflects a colorful multicultural past as well as present of the land and people of Azerbaijan who have always marched the beat of a different drummer rather than slavishly adhering to orders of or bowing to political pressures of their former colonial master which now exists on global map as Russian federation not as USSR. Azerbaijan’s multiculturalism has remained intact today all because of the secular socio-political environment which has been promulgated by its national leaders like Heydar and Ilham Aliyev. Azerbaijan’s secular values infatuate me more with this beautiful country apart from the beautiful landscape and culture this great Caucasian nation has in its possession. Azerbaijan has embraced religious diversity at a time when terrorist groups like ISIS and Boko Haram are massacring non-Muslims in the name of a religion which was founded as a religion of peace for everyone. Azerbaijani Muslims have shown to the whole global community that not all Muslims are ISIS jihadis or plane hijackers or the ones responsible for massacring innocent civilians on the streets of Paris and New York.
The year 2016 was declared by the Azerbaijani government as the “Year of Multiculturalism” to show the global community how culturally diverse their country is and how this diversity instead of being seen as something threatening (which has become quite common in today’s increasingly xenophobic world) is being celebrated in Azerbaijan. This year 2017 has been declared the “‘Year of Islamic Solidarity’ in Azerbaijan by the president Ilham Aliyev after 2016 was declared the “Year of Multiculturalism”.Mr.Aliyev while addressing the participants of The “Islamic solidarity – The Call of The Time” international conference (which took place in Baku in March this year) emphasized on harmony among different Muslim sects after emphasizing the harmony between Muslims and Non-Muslims by saying that “The importance of Islamic solidarity in the modern world can first of all be seen in the restoration of harmony within Islam. This is the elimination of misunderstandings between various denominations in a scholarly way and the establishment of relations based on mutual respect and trust between all Islamic countries”.
All of this has been made possible because of the concrete efforts of State Committee on Religious Associations of Republic of Azerbaijan which has assisted the Azerbaijani government in making Azerbaijan a country which will act as a model of religious tolerance and harmony for all predominantly Muslim countries from Northern Africa to South Asia. It’s a country where Christians and Jews aren’t perturbed by their Muslim neighbors or feel threatened from them but they instead celebrate Hanukkah, Christmas and Eid together and they also revel together in merriments of Persian New Year Nowruz which is an official public holiday in Azerbaijan. Success of this state committee in ensuring religious harmony in Azerbaijan is also manifested in the words of its chairman Mubariz Gurbanli who has repeatedly reiterated that “Tolerance is way of life of our (Azerbaijani) people”.