BAKU (Combined Sources)–The spiritual leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan voiced support for the long-running efforts to peacefully resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and vowed to help reconcile their estranged nations after a landmark meeting in Baku on Monday.
The supreme head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Catholicos Karekin II, met with Azerbaijan’s Shia Muslim leader, Sheikh-ul-Islam Allahshukur Pashazade, as well as the Russian Orthodox Church leader, Patriarch Kirill II, on the sidelines of a summit of world religious leaders held in the Azerbaijani capital. Karekin II attended the forum at their invitation.
The three leaders appealed for Karabakh peace in a joint declaration issued after their meeting. The declaration encourages the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents as well as international mediators to continue to look for a compromise solution to the bitter dispute.
“It is vitally important not to allow a return to military ways of solving contentious issues,” reads the document. “With our peace efforts, we will be sustaining people’s hopes for the elimination of existing divisions, barriers and animosity, for war, if it is continued, will have no end.” It welcomes liberation of prisoners and other “acts of goodwill” between the warring sides and condemns any “acts of vandalism” committed in the conflict zone.
“I believe that all problems in the Caucasus, including the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, will be solved by peaceful and just means,” the Azerbaijani Trend news agency quoted Pashazade as telling Karekin II at the meeting. “I am confident that you too will strive to make sure that the problem does not take on a religious character.”
“I appreciate the participation of Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians Karekin II in our summit as he accepted our invitation in spite of some difficulties and I believe it is an important step on the road of peace and I invite the Catholicos to more active relations in this direction, restoring both direct and mediated interaction,” Pashazade said at summit’s opening ceremony.
Pashazade also praised the role of the Russian Church, the Georgian Patriarchate and the World Council of Churches in organizing the meeting between the two spiritual leaders of Azerbaijan and Armenia.
Karekin II was reported to agree, saying that the two clergies should jointly make sure that the Karabakh conflict does not transform into a “religious confrontation.”
The Karabakh conflict was also a key theme of the Catholicos’s speech delivered at the Baku summit and publicized by his press office in Echmiadzin earlier in the day. “It is our duty to urge our peoples to help the presidents of our states peacefully move towards a solution to the existing problems and a final settlement of the conflict,” he told over 150 religious leaders from around the world.
‘We thank God that the peace negotiations on the Karabakh conflict settlement continue,” he was quoted by news.az as saying. “We want Armenians and Azerbaijanis to live together, borders to open and wide contacts to be established.”
“We are praying to see the nice day when all the closed borders in the region will be open and when all people will be able to move freely,” the Catholicos said, referring to himself. He ended the speech by publicly inviting Pashazade to visit the Echmiadzin headquarters of the Armenian Church. He also offered to host the following World Council of Churches Summit in Armenia.
Karekin II and two bishops accompanying him became the first high-ranking Armenian clerics to set foot in Azerbaijan since the outbreak of the Karabakh conflict in 1988. Archbishop Vicken Aykazian, an Armenian Apostolic Church legate in the United States, also attended the forum in his capacity as president of the U.S. National Council of Churches.
The Baku summit also featured a speech by Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, who pledged to make his county into a center of inter-faith dialogue in the region.
He said Azerbaijan has always been famous for its tolerance of different faiths and nationalities, “so it was entirely appropriate that the summit should be held in Baku.”
“I hope such events will further continue in Baku and Baku will be entitled to call itself a world centre of inter-religious dialogue,” Interfax-Azerbaijan quoted him as saying.
“Representatives of different religions have always lived here as one family,” he said. “The meeting of religious leaders in Baku has already become a tradition.”
Azerbaijan, he continued, “has high hopes” for Baku’s transformation into a center of inter-religious dialogue. “Azerbaijan is a natural bridge between East and West,” he said, adding that Azerbaijan “protects and promotes the freedom of religion along with other rights and liberties.”
Though he touted Azerbaijan as a beacon for religious freedom, Aliyev made no mention of a recently enacted law that requires religious minorities to apply to register with the state. Four religious communities have had their applications for re-registration turned down–the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baku Baptists, Baku Adventists and the Fatima Zahra Mosque.