Saint Michael Archangel Church in Baku. Photo- Urek Meniashvili. Wikipedia

Saint Michael Archangel Church in Baku. Photo- Urek Meniashvili. Wikipedia

Aykhan Hasanov – OCP News Service – 25/9/18

The Republic of Azerbaijan is a Caspian coastal state in the Southern Caucasus which re-established its independence upon the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Located at the crossroads of Eastern Europe and Southwest Asia, Azerbaijan acts as a bridge-builder in the dialogue between both civilizations. Historical background, geographical position, and population’s ethnic composition gave rise to the existence of various religious communities on its territory. At a certain period of time, idolatry, fire-worship, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam and a number of other beliefs spread across (varying degrees) the nation and the mutual influences have drawn up the originality of country’s religious palette. The majority of the population, (more precisely 96%) professes Islamic faith. Here also live Christians, Jews and representatives of other faiths. According to the Constitution, religion is separated from the state. Azerbaijan is one among the 11 Muslim majority countries in which secularism is determined constitutionally. The state equally ‘applies’ to all religious beliefs from the declared principles of secularism.

Today, by the number of followers Christianity is the second widespread religion in Azerbaijan after Islam. The landscape of this religion in Azerbaijan is quite diverse and rich. Thus, followers of the Alban-Udi religious community, as well as Orthodox, Roman Catholics, representatives of various Protestant denominations and new Christian religious movements exist in the country. Christians constitute about 2 percent of country’s total population. These are predominantly Russians, Belarusians, Greeks, Georgians, Udins, Ukrainians and representatives of some other minority religion. Although Roman Catholics are ranked first (by the number of followers), Protestants second, Orthodox believers third among the Christian confessions in the world, the landscape in Azerbaijan are different. The largest Christian confession here is Orthodoxy, represented by the Russian and Georgian Orthodox Churches.

The Russian Orthodox Church was established in Azerbaijan in the XIX century when tsarist troops set foot on this ancient land. After the Tsarist invasion, the Church was deeply rooted in the country as a result of resettlement of Russian, Belarusian, Ukrainian, and other Orthodox peoples, and soon became the largest Christian confession. As a Church organization, the history of the Russian Orthodox Church in the country begins with the construction of Chapel of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker in the place of an old mosque near the Maiden Tower in 1815.

During the Russian Empire, the Russian Church had great privileges until the February Revolution in 1917. As a result of the revolution, tsarism collapsed and former colonies of the empire declared their independence. The Azerbaijani people did not stand aloof from historical and political developments. They took steps to restore the statehood traditions. Thus, the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic was established on May 28, 1918. The new page in the field of state-religion relations has been turned in the country. The ADR with its Muslim majority population did not declare Islam as an official religion and did not give preference to any religion or denomination. The Orthodox temples in ADR operated freely; the Orthodox believers did not suffer any discrimination and enjoyed their rights. It is worthy enough to mention the fact that the “Slavic-Russian Society” fraction was presented in the Parliament of Azerbaijan Democratic Republic. Freedom of conscience in the Republic was eliminated when XI Red Army troops occupied Azerbaijan and the Soviet power was established in the country on 28 April 1920.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union (USSR), the Azerbaijani people restored statehood traditions on October 18, 1991. A number of significant historical events took place in the life of the Orthodox community, one of which is re-establishment of Baku and Caspian Eparchy. On 15 November 2013, the Orthodox Religious-Cultural Centre of Baku and Azerbaijan Eparchy was opened within the Holy Myrrh-bearers Church. The Eparchy is engaged in extensive charitable activities. For example, a charity canteen for orphans is functioning within the campus of the Orthodox Church of Archangel Michael. At the same time, the eparchy annually hosts charity concerts, holds Sunday schools and catechism courses, publishes “Pravoslavnıy Kaspi” (Orthodox Caspian) journal and “Pravoslavniy Vestnik” (Orthodox herald) newspaper.

The Baku and Azerbaijan diocese mainly operates on voluntary donations of churchgoers, sales of religious goods and, most importantly, and from the financial assistance of Azerbaijani government. Today, the Baku and Azerbaijan diocese contributes to the development of inter-religious relations and strengthening of tolerant atmosphere in the country. Cooperation between the government and diocese is at a high level and religious needs of Orthodox people are always at the center of government’s attention.

Approximately 9 900 Georgians live in the republic. That is, Georgians make up 0.1% of the country’s population. They are mainly settled in Gakh district. The highest number of worshipers of Georgian temples is observed during Kurmukoba holiday in May and November. There are four Georgian Orthodox temples in the country: St. George’s Georgian Orthodox Church (1888, Gakhingiloy village of Gakh district), St. Nino’s Georgian Orthodox Church (late 19th century, Alibeyli village of Gakh district), St. Sameba’s Georgian Orthodox Church (1892-1894, Kotukli village of Gakh district), St. Michael’s Georgian Orthodox Church (1892-1894, Mashabash village of Gakh district). These Georgian Orthodox Churches are protected by the Ministry of Culture as religious-historical monuments. Local Georgian Orthodox religious communities also operate on voluntary donations of churchgoers. At the same time, the Caucasian Muslims’ Office also provides substantial financial assistance to Georgian Orthodox, which is a clear indication of the religious tolerance existing in the country. The state within annual limit supplies free of charge natural gas to religious temples belonging to mosques and other religious communities as well as to Georgian Orthodox temples.

Despite the Armenian-Azerbaijan conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, if you visit Baku you can even see the Armenian-Gregorian Church in the center of the city and witness that everything is protected. This is another of the great tolerance of Azerbaijani people. According to the State Statistical Committee of Azerbaijan (2009), about 120,000 Armenians are in the country. Most of them live in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Referring to Orthodoxy in Azerbaijan, it is worth mentioning Orthodox Russians, namely Old Believers (Starovers, Raskolniks), who do not recognize the Moscow Patriarchate. The presence of first Raskolniks in the country dates back to the 30s of the XIX century. They settled in the Altiaghac region of Baku province and hid in caves from the tsarist government’s persecution. The Molokans living here provided them with cereals. Unfortunately, today the exact number of Old Believers living in Azerbaijan is not known precisely.

As it can be read from the above details, the religious-ethnic tolerance which is considered as one of the democratic values in the progressive world has become an exemplary form of Azerbaijani society. As a multi-ethnic and multi-confessional state, today the Republic of Azerbaijan pursues a policy of complete integration into the world community, supports all efforts to protect religious freedom in the world.

Disclaimer: Please note that the opinions expressed in the above article are solely the author’s and it does not represent those of Orthodoxy Cognate PAGE or OCP New Service.

Aykhan Hasanov