Azerbaijan is a secular country, has no official state religion, and according to Azerbaijan’s Constitution, each religion is equal before the law. Any efforts to propagate hatred towards other religions or to restrict interfaith harmony, are prohibited. At the same time, the state system of education is also secular.
Prior to the Islamic period, Zoroastrianism and Christianity were very widespread in the territory that is now Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan’s ancestral state called Caucasian Albania accepted Christianity as its official state religion in the year 313, thus becoming one of the earliest Christian nations. There were also Buddhist and various syncretic sects in the region, but their influence was relatively slight.
After the conquest of Azerbaijan in the 7th by the Arab Caliphate, most Azerbaijanis accepted Islam as their religion. Today, around 93% of the country’s inhabitants are of Islamic background, and most of the Muslims in Azerbaijan are Shiites. A continuing example of the unique power of the country’s cultural heritage of peace and tolerance is in the way they view other Muslims. Most Azerbaijanis do not see a major difference between Sunni and Shiite Islam, and followers of both groups intermarry and at some mosques pray and worship together. Approximately 5% of the population is Christian, and they pray openly, often celebrating events collaboratively with their Muslim brothers and sisters. There are Armenian Apostolic Church, a German Lutheran Church and a Russian Orthodox Church in the country. The new Catholic Church (Church of the Virgin Mary’s Immaculate Conception) the cornerstone of which was laid during Pope John Paul II’s visit to Baku in May 2002, was inaugurated in 2008 on a land gifted by the Government of Azerbaijan.
An estimated 30,000 Jews live in Azerbaijan. A new synagogue for the Jews of Azerbaijan, entirely financed and built by the Government of Azerbaijan in less than six months, was opened in April 2011 in Baku. This is the first synagogue built by government of a predominantly Muslim country. Altogether there are six synagogues in Azerbaijan.
Despite the ongoing military occupation of Azerbaijan’s lands by Armenia, over 30,000 ethnic Armenians continue to live peacefully in Baku and other major cities of the country. These examples of continued peaceful engagement are a testament to the strong heritage of ethnic and religious tolerance in the Azerbaijani society.
The three major religions have prospered because of the age-old respect and tolerance of the Azerbaijani people, who pride themselves on peaceful coexistence. But as the experience in different parts of the world shows, social tolerance cannot achieve much if the government promotes intolerance and allows sectarianism to take hold. The Government of Azerbaijan, however, has created an environment that nurtures and promotes the ancient traditions of tolerance, and rejects radicalism, extremism and hatred.
Azerbaijan sees diversity as one of the country’s great strengths and virtues, and has worked to ensure that this diversity continues to blossom. The government has built and rebuilt synagogues, mosques, and churches; created new religious-cultural centers for different faiths; and financially supported all three religions without discrimination. Christians and Jews are represented in all three branches of government in Azerbaijan. Religious harmony is also powerfully reflected in the country’s foreign policy. It is no coincidence that Azerbaijan enjoys excellent relations both with Israel and the Muslim world, and is increasingly regarded as a bridge-builder between communities and cultures. The government has repeatedly, over the course of the last decade, brought together religious leaders from the region and around the world to promote interfaith dialogue.