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Conference hears how West and Europe can learn from Azerbaijan

A major conference heard what the West and Europe can take from Azerbaijan to foster religious tolerance as well as countering an alarming rise in hate speech. Martin Banks writes.

Today’s event in Brussels (5 December) was called Promoting inter-religious dialogue for a safer planet. It gathered politicians, religious leaders and other participants in a day-long debate.

Part of the event was organized by the Baku International Multiculturalism Centre and the State Committee on Religious Associations of Azerbaijan.

Former UK Conservative MEP Sajjid Karaim, CEO of Haider Global BVBA was the keynote speaker. He stated that he was “very worried” about what he called a “rise in destructive forces at national level.”

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He said, “We are witnessing evidence that national leaders compromise on cohesion to political advantage.”

Briton was elected the first British Asian member of the European Parliament in 2004. He shared an example of his recent visit to Baku, where he saw “little to no protection.”

This was contrasted with his experience in Liverpool and Manchester as an MEP, when he visited synagogues or events involving Jewish communities. He saw “layers of protection”.


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He stated that Baku did not have the perceived need to do this, which was a reflection of how Azerbaijan dealt with multiculturalism.

It speaks volumes about religious tolerance in Azerbaijan, and what we can learn by that country.

The Conference of European Rabbis President Pinchas Goldschmidt spoke as another speaker at the opening session on the “role of faith in today’s society”. He told participants that Azerbaijan is an example for others.

He said, “Even during the most difficult period in the Soviet period it was a center of religious tolerance towards the Jewish community.”

“Europe and Europeans are becoming increasingly secular, but radical religion continues defining our society and this cannot be ignored. It is important to support moderate religion.

Daniel Holtgen (special representative on antisemitic and anti-Muslim hate crimes at Strasbourg-based Council of Europe) also spoke in the same session. He stated that the latest data shows that around 25% of Europeans do not identify as any one religion.

He noted that hate crimes against religious minorities are also on the rise.

He stated that Jews comprise just one percent of the UK’s population, but they account for 25% of all hate crimes. He said that there were more than 2,000 attacks on Jews in the UK in 2013.

He said that Muslims are responsible for almost 50 percent of hate crimes in the UK. There were 3,500 attacks on Muslims in the last year.

He stated that such attacks are also happening now in countries where you don’t expect them, including Germany, where there were 3,000 attacks on Jews and 1,000 on Muslims last year.

He stated, “Yes, we live within a secular world, but we also see more and more attacks against Muslims, Jews, and other people.”

He said, “We must tackle this problem including internet which provides people a platform to do such things.”

“We must learn from each other, including the Azerbaijan experience, and address this at the local level in towns and streets. Respecting others is more than tolerance.

Ventzeslav Sabev (deputy general secretary, Geneva Geostrategic Observatory) spoke about a project that involved young people. He had created the “youth charter”, which highlights some of the problems facing society, including religious tolerance.

Aynur Bashirova (European and Asian Desk Coordinator at Heartland Initiative) also spoke out about anti-Semitism, claiming that there are “many reasons” for this.

She stated, “These include education and background, but one thing that stands out is a loss of knowledge, which is the lack of people-to people contact and not knowing anything about other people, and accepting any stereotypes that are thrown at you.”

She said that intolerance and intolerant people can be found all over the world and that Christians aren’t immune to criticism. However, she added, “But failing to seek out knowledge (about other people) is a moral sin to yourself.”

Representative of the Caucasus Muslim’s Board Jeyhun Rustamov told the session that the intolerance discussed at the conference was a “disease”, and stressed the need to have more dialogue.

He said, “It’s a disease that has been created by man.”

Robert Tyler, a New Direction senior policy advisor, moderated the session. He told the audience that Christians make up less than half of the UK’s population.

According to Tyler, a rising number of people are now not religious. This trend is being repeated in other parts Europe.

It was revealed that Azerbaijan is a “steady advocate” for multiculturalism and has made “significant” efforts to promote such values.

It was stated that multiculturalism is both a “way to life” in the country and a key component of state policies.

It was stated that UN General Assembly resolutions recognize the importance of promoting a culture of non-violence and peace.

This conference was organized in collaboration with the Institute for Freedom of Faith and Security in Europe and New Direction Foundation for European Reform.

Participants were also allowed to view a photo exhibit that showcased common values and faiths during the debates. Gunel Yusifi, of the State Committee on Religious Associations of Azerbaijan organized it.

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