Azerbaijani Jewish leader Aleksandr Sharovskiy was at the airport in Brussels when he saw four charity containers — three asking for donations for hungry children, one featuring a panda seeking funds for endangered animals — and noticed that the container for the animals had the most cash.
“If these jars were in Azerbaijan, nobody would give a penny for the panda, but most people would donate money for children,” Sharovskiy said as a way of describing the priorities of his countrymen.
Sharovskiy was in San Francisco last week as part of an interfaith delegation of Azerbaijanis that included Jewish, Muslim and Christian leaders. They came to promote their oil-rich nation as a paragon of multiculturalism and tolerance.
The talk was titled “Multifaith Harmony Without Conflict: Religious Pluralism and Tolerance in a Majority Muslim Country.”
A film shown before the panel discussion described Azerbaijan as “a country with zero anti-Semitism” and pointed out that Jews have been living there for more than two millennia.
Nasimi Aghayev, the Azerbaijani consul general based in Los Angeles, said the group — whose visit was sponsored by the American Jewish Committee — was in the U.S. “to share stories of peaceful and harmonious coexistence,” adding that Azerbaijan was established 100 years ago as the first secular republic in the Muslim world and that women got the right to vote there in 1919 — one year before the 19th Amendment granted U.S. women’s suffrage.
Mubariz Gurbanli, chairman of the Azerbaijani Committee for Work with Religious Organizations, said through a translator that his nation manages to have good relations with both Israel and Iran.
Gurbanli also said religious freedom in Azerbaijan has flourished since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 — there were 17 mosques, one church and one synagogue in the country then, he said, while today there are 2,000 mosques, 13 churches and eight synagogues, with one more shul being built.
“Can you imagine that in our country we Jewish people have two high schools, three kindergartens, one yeshiva, nine synagogues and we have an atmosphere of tolerance that we can’t see even in most European countries?” asked the kippah-wearing Milikh Yevdayev, president of the religious community of Azerbaijan’s Mountain Jews.
“Multiculturalism is not a magic stick that you can use one time and everyone becomes multicultural. It must be in your blood, in your spirit, in your environment.”
About 3,600 of Azerbaijan’s estimated 30,000 Jews live in the mountain town of Qirmizi Qasaba, which once was known in the region as “Little Jerusalem.”
But not everyone at the May 16 discussion was convinced of Azerbaijan’s broad-mindedness. Two representatives of the Armenian National Committee of America handed out a flyer to audience members as they entered the Commonwealth Club listing “Azerbaijan’s history of intolerance and repression” and accusing the nation of censorship, human rights abuses and “ethno-religious pogroms against the large Armenian community” in Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan and neighboring Armenia fought two wars in the 20th century, and the countries have no diplomatic relations. They continue to clash over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, a part of Azerbaijan that historically has had a predominantly ethnic Armenian population.
The State Department’s 2017 human rights report on Azerbaijan included charges of “unlawful or arbitrary killing,” torture, arbitrary arrest, physical attacks on journalists, blocking of websites, and police detention and torture of LGBTI individuals.
When the people who handed out the critical flyer asked panel members a question about treatment of Christian Armenians in mostly Muslim Azerbaijan, Gurbanli responded that there was no religious conflict and blamed tensions on Armenia occupying Azerbaijani territory in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The questioners shouted out that Gurbanli was misrepresenting the facts, and stormed out of the event.
“Tolerance comes from our tradition,” Gurbanli said. “We don’t discriminate against any other nations, any other cultures. We have excellent relations with all cultures, all nations, living both inside our country and outside our country.”