Archbishop Aykazian: Azerbaijan wants dialogue

by Emil Sanamyan

Published: Wednesday May 05, 2010

Catholicos Karekin II and Archbishop Vicken Aykazian (left) exchange words as they and others leave the building of former Surb Grigor Lusavorich church in Baku. Official publication via RFERL

Ilham Aliyev made yet another threat to go to war with Armenia just three days before meeting Catholicos Karekin II on April 26 . Azerbaijani president's office

Washington - On April 26, Catholicos Karekin II traveled to Baku, Azerbaijan, to participate in the World Summit of Religious Leaders. His Holiness attended the summit at the invitation of its co-chairs Kirill I, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, and Sheikh ul-Islam Haji Allahshukur Hummat Pashazade, Grand Mufti of Azerbaijan.

Archbishop Vicken Aykazian, Legate of the Eastern Diocese in Washington, also took part in the summit in his capacity as the past president of the National Council of Churches in the U.S.

On April 29, The Armenian Reporter's editor Emil Sanamyan asked Archbishop Aykazian to share his immediate impressions.

Aykazian. The most impressive was the city of Baku. It is very beautiful, very organized, very clean. It reminded me a little bit of Istanbul. When you see the old city, of which I saw very little, you understand that there was a culture and it is not just the petrol money.

But from what I understand, a lot of work has been done under President Aliyev. Highways are extremely good, particularly the road from the airport to the city is very beautiful and along the road they have built walls with motifs [that block the view from the road].

So [when you arrive] the first impressions are very good, as opposed to Yerevan, say, where the road from the airport to the city is quite depressing.

The conference was also well-organized. I have to say much better than the conference held in Moscow a few years ago, which I also attended.

The security was very tight. As we arrived, the road from the airport to the conference venue in Baku was shut down and there were police on every street corner.

And same happened when Catholicos went to meet Ilham Aliyev at presidential palace.

Q. Was it a last-moment trip for you?

A. I had an invitation on behalf of the National Council of Churches, but I was not initially planning to go. But I spoke with the Catholicos, he told me that he received a personal invitation from the Russian Patriarch and Sheikh-ul-Islam and was planning to attend, and suggested that I come along.

So I went on behalf of NCC, but flew in with Catholicos from Yerevan directly to Baku. An Armenian businessman from Russian offered a plane to us and it took only 45 minutes to fly from Yerevan to Baku.

Q. There were reports just a couple of weeks before the conference which quoted Sheikh-ul-Islam as expressing doubt that Catholicos would be coming.

A. There was some doubt that the trip would take place, unless a joint statement from the Russian Patriarch, Catholicos and Sheikh-ul-Islam could be agreed on in advance. Catholicos wanted to have a balanced statement before he went to Baku. And when that was ready, the trip took place.

We arrived about 9 AM and left about 10 PM at night. In addition to the summit, we visited [the building of] the Armenian church of St. Gregory the Illuminator. There was a fire in 1990 there that destroyed the frescoes. The cross is missing and alter has been destroyed, but the premises have been renovated and now well-kept.

The building now stores books, including some 6,000 books in Armenian language as we were told. The lady who handles those books is an Azerbaijani from Yerevan and speaks perfect Armenian.

Q. What would you say is the significance of this trip?

A. Everyone felt it was a very historic event. We hope that it will diffuse tensions at least a little bit. I don't know how effective it is going to be. But at least we have shown that we are ready to talk and Catholicos has invited Sheikh-ul-Islam to come to Yerevan and he accepted.

Q. The image of the Armenian Church - anything Armenian really - in Azerbaijan has been very negative in how it has been presented over the years by state officials and media. There are also the frequent threats made by Azerbaijan of going to war with Armenia. How did that reconcile with the invitation for Catholicos to visit?

A. Religious leaders came together because we believe that we can play a very positive role in helping achieve a peaceful solution of the Karabakh conflict. The religious leaders may not have the political power but they can influence those in power.

It is important to note that already in 1993 through the World Council of Churches mediation, Sheikh-ul-Islam together with Catholicos Vazgen I issued a statement that noted that Karabakh was not a religious conflict. And the Baku communiqué reiterated that.

Q. But Azerbaijan has actively sought support for its position within the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) and has been backed by majority of OIC members at the United Nations.

A. That is true. But at the same time, Islamic groups or organization have never described the conflict as religious. Even Azerbaijani religious leaders have not issued calls for jihad. There have been statements that such a call could be issued, but it has not materialized and I doubt that it will.

Q. What is your sense of the role of Sheikh-ul-Islam Pashazade in Azerbaijan today?

A. It is hard to say. But I think he is respected and my impression is that he is a good man. I was impressed by his simplicity. He was very cordial and polite with Catholicos, leaving more than 100 guests at the conference to accompany Catholicos to the airport. So the impression was of a humble, simple person.

And of course the fact that he accepted the invitation to come to Armenia means that the dialogue would continue.

Q. There has been some criticism in Armenia that Catholicos agreed to go to a country whose government continues to target Armenian religious heritage sites, with the recent destruction of the medieval cemetery of Old Jugha perhaps the most prominent example. Were those issues raised in Baku?

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