Religion, Freedom And The First Amendment

REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

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 The First Amendment to the Constitution has made the United States one of the most politically free countries in the world.  Contrary to domestic and foreign opinion, however, it is not the freedom of speech, press or right to assemble, or freedom to petition the government that are the most important clauses and directives that truly make us free.

Instead, it is the first and second clauses of the First Amendment that stand as the beacon of a government that truly respects the diversity and cultural nuances of its people. It simply states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” or “prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Freedom to believe in whatever religion we choose as individuals is what sets us apart from much of the rest of the world. But surprisingly, there is a country located in the heart of the Muslim world that also believes in this inalienable right. There is a country that has a working policy of freedom of religion, one that surprises many when they discover it. Religion and multi-religious adherents flourish in the South Caucasus nation of Azerbaijan, which is a secular majority (90 percent plus) Muslim state situated between Christian Georgia, Russia and Armenia on one hand, and Muslim Turkey, Iran and the Central Asian former Soviet Republics of Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan on the other.

Recent visitors to Azerbaijan that participated in the Baku International Humanitarian Forum were treated to watching and listening to religious leaders from around the globe and from various faiths mix with their worldwide peers. Like many international endeavors, not all participants were able to experience such a panoply of observations that might stun some and shock others.

In two days, this participant visited three Muslim mosques, a Russian Orthodox Church, a Roman Catholic Church that Pope Francis visited on Sunday, 2 October, and a Jewish synagogue in Downtown Baku. On another day, we visited an 1100-year-old mosque and two – count them – two Jewish synagogues in the city of Quba (koo-bah), two hundred kilometers north of Baku and just a few miles south of the Russian border.

Interestingly, one of the Quba synagogues is small and is known as the winter temple which is less expensive to maintain. The larger temple is two city blocks away; it is called the summer temple and is used then to accommodate the larger population of “parishioners” who summer in the Caucasus foothills, where it is substantially cooler than in Baku.

All of the churches and synagogues are supported by Azerbaijan government funds. Nonetheless, there is a strict separation of religion and state.

Religious tolerance by government can be measured in many ways, but a stunning example in Azerbaijan is the presence and stature of long-time member of the Azerbaijani Supreme Court – Justice Tatyana Goldman, a Jewish woman justice of the Supreme Court.

When her grandfather immigrated to Azerbaijan from the Russian-dominated Ukraine, he came to practice law. He couldn’t practice law in Ukraine because he was Jewish. He flourished as a lawyer in Azerbaijan where smart lawyers did well in the burgeoning oil economy of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Granddaughter Tatyana grew up wanting to be a lawyer like her grandfather despite the many restrictions placed on her by the then Soviet regime that restricted Muslims and Jews from functioning in many professional and governmental careers.

The 1991 declaration of Independence by Azerbaijan from the USSR changed everything for Muslims and Jews in the newly reconstituted Republic of Azerbaijan. It had blossomed briefly as an independent Republic between 1918-1920 complete with religious tolerance, a free press and voting for women, but had been overwhelmed by Bolsheviks and added to the USSR. There it stayed stagnant for 71 years.

In the USSR, one was a Soviet citizen first, an Azerbaijani second and a Muslim, Christian or Jew third. With rare exceptions, Muslims and Jews were not permitted to serve in the highest echelons of power as government or military leaders. Freedom of religion was not even a notion to consider for Soviet leaders.

Today Supreme Court Justice Tatyana Goldman is a living monument to the advanced state of religious tolerance in Azerbaijan. Pope Francis’ visit is another. So are the flourishing Christian churches and Jewish congregations in Muslim Azerbaijan. This observer was stunned at the religious freedom found throughout this country.

That status was cemented when we walked out of the “summer” Jewish temple in Quba, and visited a huge mosque across the river. When the Rabbi and Imam saw each other, they hugged, telling us amazing stories of their longstanding friendship. Where else can we find synagogues and mosques within sight of each other, serving the same communities and getting along so well?  Where else in the entire world?