They have tried threats. They have tried PR. And now, 22 years into the search for a Nagorno-Karabakh peace settlement, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia are turning to the power of faith.
The head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Catholicos Garegin II, and Azerbaijan’s Muslim leader, Sheikh-ul-Islam Allahshukur Pashazade, met on April 26. The 90-minute discussion -- facilitated by Kirill I, the Russian Orthodox patriarch -- marked the sixth such tête-à-tête between the religious leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan since 1988, when the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict began.
More significantly, the meeting, held on the sidelines of the World Interfaith Summit, marked Garegin II’s first-ever trip to Baku. A protest conducted by the Karabakh Liberation Organization in front of the summit site at Baku’s Gulistan Palace reflected the discomfort in some sectors of Azerbaijani society generated by Garegin II’s presence. A group of women, mostly family members of Azerbaijanis killed during the Karabakh conflict, held posters depicting war victims to protest the Armenian Catholicos’ arrival.
The protest appeared to do little to dampen summiteers’ enthusiasm for what Kirill I termed "our religious peace-making process."
A joint declaration signed after the meeting affirmed the religious leaders’ intention to "not allow a return to a military solution of disputable issues" between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The declaration also stated that "our joint efforts will help to overcome animosity between nations."
In downtown Baku, Catholicos Garegin II visited the closed Armenian church of St. Gregory the Illuminator, a facility that is now used to store books for a library run by the presidential administration. He was later received by President Ilham Aliyev at his Zagulba residence. The Armenian religious leader and the Azerbaijani president chatted for about one hour in what local media described as "an unconstrained and sincere atmosphere."
Tight security measures were maintained throughout the day. Journalists were not allowed to attend the two events.
The meeting appears to have produced some results - or at least verbal commitments. President Aliyev reportedly agreed to assist Armenia with reconstructing the church of St. Gregory, which was damaged by fire in 1990, the Turan news agency reported, citing an unnamed Azerbaijani official. In exchange, Garegin II promised to promote the restoration of a mosque in the Nagorno-Karabakh town of Shusha, a site with strong cultural significance for Azeris. [A mosque restoration project has been underway in Shusha for a few years already -- ed.] Catholicos Garegin II also invited Pashazade to visit Armenia.
The trio confirmed plans to continue their discussions and called on Azerbaijan and Armenia’s political and religious leaders to increase efforts to release those detained in connection with the Karabakh conflict, as well as to protect religious monuments and sacred places within the conflict zone.
Although few Azerbaijani experts believe that these results will be able to jump-start stalled peace talks, they note that the meeting at least created grounds for re-building trust and tolerance among Armenians and Azeris.
Others have a less rosy outlook.
"[H]is arrival to Baku is positive, but the declaration [signed at the end of the trilateral meeting] is meaningless with relation to its influence on resolution of the Karabakh problem," declared independent political analyst Rasim Musabeyov, in reference to Armenian Catholicos Garegin II.
Arif Yunus, an expert at Baku’s non-governmental Institute for Peace and Democracy, took that appraisal one step further. Given the strong secular trend in both Armenia and Azerbaijan, the influence of Garegin II and Allahshukur Pashazade is limited, he posited. "The summit and meeting can play both a positive and negative role only in societies where at least 50 percent of the population are true believers," contended Yunus. "Neither Armenian society nor Azerbaijani society is like that, and, on the other hand, the authority of both Garegin II and Pashazade is not on such a level that we can talk about their contribution to a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict."
Musabeyov said the religious leaders’ commitment to a non-violent approach on Karabakh is important. And down the road, he added, their influence could prove critical once a peace deal is reached and both Yerevan and Baku find themselves confronted by "the need to isolate radical forces, and redirect public opinion."
One leader of Azerbaijan’s Muslim community sees another influence already at work. Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, head of the Centre for Protection of Freedom of Conscience and Faith, thinks that Garegin II’s visit to Baku demonstrates Russia’s increased influence in the South Caucasus.
"[I]t shows that the Russian Orthodox Church is currently headed by a charismatic patriarch who is able not only to create opportunities for meetings between belligerent states, but also to make the visit of a religious leader of one state to another one a reality," commented Ibrahimoglu. "I see the role of Russia here."
Mina Muradova is a freelance reporter based in Baku.