February 17, 2020

A Passion for Religious Tolerance: A Story of the Pope, a Jew and a Majority-Muslim Country

It was truly a remarkable day, October 2. Who would have believed that on that day I would be watching the Holy Father Pope Francis, in a newly constructed mosque in Baku, standing arm and in arm with Muslims, Orthodox, Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox Christians and other faith leaders, while he proclaimed his rich belief that faith and spiritual renewal was surely well positioned in this relatively young country – my country, Azerbaijan.

As I write this, I am overwhelmed by what I experienced, what I felt as I reached out to his hand and he clasped mine and looked to me to share with my fellow Jewish community and to the world the importance of what he called a “great moment of courage and strength” in our country.

The Pope continued his prayer by proclaiming how Azerbaijan is a model of multicultural expression and engagement that should be “looked at by all the world.” In that moment I felt such a great sense of pride and accomplishment not just for the community I live in, but for all the many, many people in my country that believe in the power of humanity and harmony.

As I have stated before, not only do the faiths enjoy a freedom of religious practice, but people of various ethnic and religious backgrounds are represented in our government. I wrote in my recent article how “today the Parliament of Azerbaijan (Milli Majlis) has members of various ethnic minorities living in Azerbaijan.”

This rich and indomitable history of interfaith and cultural freedom in Azerbaijan is something that His Holiness was not only enthusiastic about, but suggested it is something that the many counties that surround Azerbaijan ought to take notice of. His words speak an important truth.

As President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan said to the Pope: “You are sending a clear message to the world here from Baku that multiculturalism, interfaith dialogue and goodwill has to prevail.”

And this visit comes on the heels of another multicultural event – the 5th Annual Baku International Humanitarian Forum, where hundreds of leaders from 80 countries gathered to discuss the important topics of our time, building bridges between countries, cultures and communities. By week’s end, I was buoyant with the amount of optimism and belief that in this very difficult time we live in, there are great and powerful stories to tell about how our global world is not necessarily dominated by hate and distrust, that there are individuals, organizations and countries working to move beyond the forces of evil and division.

So I hope that with these words, everyone can feel a clear sense of my heart being filled with joy and a spirit of hope. That I can in fact take on the challenge of the Pope and others and spread the idea that together we can do so much more.

As we enter the highest holiest holidays of the Jewish religion, I feel that there is a willingness, not only within my country, but in the human spirit to build and embrace a consciousness and passion for engagement and harmony. I know that the smile I carry with me will be there for a very long time, and carries with it a blessing to let others know why.