- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 15, 2008

“The Vatican sees Azerbaijan as a model of religious tolerance,” said Vatican Foreign Minister Cardinal Tarcisio Bertoni last week at a ceremony in Baku. The president and first lady of Azerbaijan joined Cardinal Bertoni in celebrating the inauguration of the first Roman Catholic Church in this Muslim country of 8 million, a debunking of the myth of the clash of civilizations. As the West struggles to find a solution to the threat posed by Islamic radicalism, the Azerbaijan model of religious tolerance promises hope.

The premise for this model is enshrined in Article 48 of the Azerbaijan Constitution that guarantees “everyone has a right to choose any faith, to adopt any religion, to express one’s view on their religion and to spread it.” The constitution goes on to say that “religion acts separately from the government but each religion is equal before the law.” Not surprisingly, members of Azerbaijan’s Christian, Jewish, Zoroastrian and Muslim faiths live, work and play side-by-side. Even members of Azerbaijan’s small Bahai faith, who are persecuted in neighboring Islamic Iran, are free to practice their religion.

Notwithstanding the codification of religious freedom in this energy-rich Muslim country, the true guarantor of religious tolerance has been the leadership of this modern, dynamic and multi-ethnic country. Heydar Aliyev, the late president, argued that religious tolerance “is in our blood and in our culture,” which is why he said, “Islam is in our hearts but will not be allowed on our streets.” The founder of modern Azerbaijan believed that Islam belonged in the spiritual realm, not in the temporal creation of a modern state. At the ceremony, his son, President Ilham Aliyev, continued this tradition of welcoming and celebrating religious pluralism by stating, “Our country is made richer today because we have a new member in our family.” One could sense a feeling of pride as members of the country’s religious community gathered in this magnificent church designed by Italian and Azerbaijani architects and listened to young Azerbaijanis sing songs from the Bible.

The real significance of the ceremony is best understood in the context of Azerbaijan’s recent history. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, 20 percent of Azerbaijan’s territory has been occupied by neighboring Armenia, a Christian nation. Close to 1 million Azerbaijanis have been displaced and left homeless as a result of this occupation. If it were any other Muslim country, demagogues would have used this illegal act of occupation to perpetuate hatred toward all Christians. Yet, what one sees emanating from the leadership and people of Azerbaijan is patience, tolerance, and respect for Christians and the Christian faith. Indeed, calling it a “historic day in the life of Azerbaijan,” President Aliyev took pride in his country’s rich tradition, thus setting the tone and tenure of how a true Muslim country should behave. This fact was not lost on the Pope’s representative, who declared: “This historic day is an event of global meaning.” 74 years after the Bolsheviks destroyed Azerbaijan’s places of worship when they imposed atheistic Communism on this Muslim nation, the spirit of religious tolerance was once again on display, demonstrating to the world that a Muslim nation can embrace all faiths and in the process marginalize the voices of hatred and intolerance.

It is important to note that Azerbaijan is emerging as a major exporter of energy to Europe and the United States, has troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and welcomed cooperation with the United States on all levels. In fact, Azerbaijan openly seeks to foster closer political and security relations with the United States and Europe. The stability of Azerbaijan as an energy supplier, its partnership in the war on terror and cooperation with Washington rests in part on the notion that there are no contradictions between Islam and democratic pluralism.

If Muslim countries like Azerbaijan embrace religious tolerance as President Aliyev reasons, then citizens with differing ideologies ” secular vs. religious, traditionalist vs. modernist ” can participate in the political life of their nation without resorting to terror and mayhem. Azerbaijan has found that subtle balance between traditional Islamic values and the imperatives of modernity as an anchor for internal stability. This is a rare commodity in the Muslim Middle East.

Irrespective of which party wins the U.S. election in November, the next American president will continue to face the menace of Islamic radicalism. Luckily, Washington has a model in Azerbaijan that it can embrace. In recognition of this fact, one of the first guests to the White House in 2009 should be the leader of Azerbaijan.

S. Rob Sobhani is president of Caspian Energy Consulting.

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