November 19, 2019

Led by majority-Muslim Azerbaijan, the Council of Europe resolves to preserve Jewish heritage

We are used to hearing a lot of bad news, especially during the last decade or two, regarding the relations among various religions. Much blood has been shed in different parts of the world in the name of one religion against the other/s, based on the radical interpretation/distortion of the religion and narrow-minded zero sum thinking. Pitting religions against each other continues to serve political, financial, ideological and other goals of many different groups, wherever they are: the Middle East, Asia, Europe or the United States.


However there are also good news regarding the interfaith understanding that need to be shared. Although good news are usually and quite unfortunately not considered the main revenue generators for the media, they should nevertheless be shared and spread to inspire more good in the world.


A piece of good news came a few days ago from Europe. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), which unites all 47 European nations from Azerbaijan to Iceland covering around 820 million people, held on October 4 a plenary session solely dedicated to preserving the Jewish cultural heritage across Europe.


“Jewish cultural heritage forms an integral part of the shared cultural heritage in Europe and its preservation is therefore the responsibility of all,” the parliamentarians said, adopting a resolution based on the report by Raphael Comte from Switzerland. “By ensuring the survival of these Jewish sites such as historic synagogue buildings – most of which have been neglected – the collective memory is also preserved, and this helps to raise young people’s awareness of their history and culture, while promoting intercultural dialogue and social cohesion,” the adopted text underlines. Finally, PACE invited the EU to cooperate with the Council of Europe to set up a mechanism for monitoring the state of Jewish heritage preservation, and to introduce an award for outstanding volunteer work on this heritage preservation.


The plenary session was chaired by PACE Vice President Samad Seyidov, who is also the Chairman of International Relations Committee of Azerbaijan’s Parliament and Head of Azerbaijan’s delegation to PACE. Mr Seyidov is one of the staunchest advocates of Azerbaijan’s strong friendship with the Jewish people and Israel.Two members of Azerbaijan’s delegation, Mrs. Sevinj Fataliyeva and Mr. Rafael Huseynov, spoke at the session.


Azerbaijan is a secular majority-Muslim nation, with an almost 95% Muslim population, the majority of which are Shia Muslims. This Caucasus nation is also blessed with a 30,000-strong Jewish community that have been living there in peace and dignity since over 2,000 years, making Azerbaijan today an inspirational role model for Muslim-Jewish peace, acceptance and harmony in the entire world.


Therefore, it should come as no surprise that Azerbaijani parliamentarians took the lead in PACE discussions advocating for more rigorous protection of Jewish cultural heritage in Europe, based on Azerbaijan’s own positive experiences and practices.


Mr. Rafael Huseynov said: “It is not a coincidence that today synagogues are operating not only in Baku, but also in various regions of Azerbaijan. Jewish graves dating back hundreds of years are respectfully preserved throughout the country… The successful fate of the Jewish cultural heritage in Azerbaijan is a striking example of the ethnic, religious and cultural diversity.”


Mrs. Sevinj Fataliyeva is one of the 20 female members of Azerbaijan’s Parliament (out of 125 members). As a woman, I am glad to see so many active and energetic women in our Parliament. After all, in 1919 Azerbaijan was the first majority-Muslim nation to grant the right to vote and to be elected to women. 


Here are some excerpts from Mrs. Fataliyeva’s speech at the PACE session:


“To preserve cultural heritage you need to respect it. Jewish heritage is one of the most valued and preserved in Azerbaijan. A number of joint organizations were founded for the purpose of preservation of Jewish heritage in the country. In particular, the Azerbaijan-Israel Friendship Center, the Jewish Agency “Sokhnut,” committees for the protection and preservation of Jewish traditions, religious schools, and the Jewish Cultural Center as well as “Eva” women’s society, “Alef” youth clubs, and “Hillel” Student Organization are actively operating, and a number of Jewish newspapers are published. In 2010, under the project of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation titled “Azerbaijan – Address of Tolerance”, the Chabad-Or-Avner educational center for Jewish children living in Baku was constructed for 450 students.”


“Another vivid example of preserving Jewish heritage is a village located near Guba city of Azerbaijan, called Red Village. Red Village is recognized as the center for the development and preservation of the material and spiritual culture of Mountain Jews in Azerbaijan and beyond.  It is no coincidence that this village is called the “Jerusalem of the Caucasus.”


“The obligations of the Republic of Azerbaijan on the protection and development of the Red Village’s Jewish community are reflected in the Constitution and laws adopted by the Parliament. In 1991 (after the collapse of the Soviet Union), the Azerbaijani government resumed work on the study of Jewish traditions in Red Village. In recent years, in addition to the general education program, several educational institutions studying Judaism have been established. The Law of the Republic of Azerbaijan on Education, adopted in 2009, provides for the right of ethnic minorities of Azerbaijan to establish educational institutions in their native language. These all show that preservation of Jewish heritage is both a tradition and part of state policy in Azerbaijan. We believe that if we don’t respect the culture and heritage of others, we won’t respect ours.”


Well said! The age-old principle of “Love your neighbor as yourself” should always be followed so that all nations, religions and cultures can coexist in peace, dignity, mutual respect and harmony.