On October 18th, I found myself in Azerbaijan’s Ganja, a day after the fourth missile attack had struck civilian targets in the city. I witnessed the tragic scenes of destruction and death in a residential district, meeting Jewish families and hearing their accounts first-hand.
I saw. I listened. I prayed. But I was forced to consider a difficult question: what can a religious leader do when confronted with such scenes, except bear witness and join with a community in mourning to offer prayers for the deceased?
Those two acts – of witness and prayer – must form the cornerstone of my response. But I believe that people of faith have a further responsibility to offer hope. Hope is a simple word. But it requires, in the words of a former US President, a level of audacity.
To speak with clarity about hope in this troubled region is not easy. Armenian forces of occupation have remained in control of Nagorno-Karabakh and its seven surrounding districts – a quarter of Azerbaijan’s territories – for nearly thirty years. It is the fact that, for both sides, the issue remains unsettled that has led to the return of conflict.
Any discussion of the hope for peace raises a question that communities around the world struggle. What is the best path to peace in our multi-cultural, multi-faith world? For different communities to isolate themselves behind barricades, or for them to seek to live in harmony as neighbours?
Today, there are no Azerbaijanis in Armenia. Yet 30,000 Armenians live peacefully inside Azerbaijan – and not including those in the occupied territories – as equal citizens with their neighbours, alongside Azerbaijan’s Jewish community of 30,000, with synagogues and schools flourishing in Baku and across the country.
The majority are Ashkenazi Jews who began arriving in the early 19th century. Still more came to find refuge in the nation when dark forces threatened in the Russian Empire and Europe.
But there is also an ancient Jewish tradition that reaches farther back. Mountain Jews account for nearly a third of those that follow the Talmud in Azerbaijan. They are the descendants of the Jewry of the Persian Empire, who can be traced to the area since before the 5th century.
Together, the Jewish community is proud to be a distinctive part of the rich and complex fabric of our nation, alongside Lezgins, Russians, Georgians, Kurds and a whole host of other ethnic identities.
Though the majority follow Islam, Azerbaijan is a secular, multi-faith, multi-ethnic state, with religious and cultural freedoms. This must surely be the natural condition for any Caucasian country, poised as our region is between East and West, on one of the great religious, cultural and trading crossroads of history. It is both the natural condition and the basis for hope in our damaged world.
Azerbaijan’s government has affirmed its guarantees of safety and equal citizenship for the majority Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh. This is a crucial first step to a return to the time, remembered only by older generations, when Armenians and Azerbaijanis lived side by side in that region in peace. It also offers hope to the 700,000 Internally Displaced Persons – evicted during the 1990s war – that they will soon be able return to their home.
I hope never to witness the carnage I have seen on the streets of Ganja again. I pray for all those who have died and suffered on both sides. But above all, I cling to hope for a better future. Every day in the synagogue of Baku we say the following prayer:
“He, The Lord who makes peace in his heavens, may he make peace for us and for the all world; and say, Amen!”