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Religious and ethnic minorities feel secure in Azerbaijan - OSCE

Rabbi Andrew Baker, Personal Representative of the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office on Combating Anti-Semitism since 2009, talked to Trend in an exclusive interview.

How does Europe fight with the increasing trends of Islamophobia, xenophobia and anti-Semitism in its area? Can you please specify the core reasons and sources for such dangerous tendencies?

There are both short-term concerns which require attention and long-term strategies that must be employed. To speak generally, we must first focus on addressing the basic and very real security challenges, which is a particular threat to Jewish communities in Europe. There are problems of discrimination in employment and housing and being profiled by authorities which primarily concern Muslims in Europe; enforcement of existing anti-discrimination legislation would help. With large numbers of refugees and migrants recently arrived in Europe and right-wing populist forces playing on fear and xenophobia, it is a necessary but uphill battle to send out a message of tolerance and inclusion. Of course, over the long-term we need better education tools to diminish these prejudices.

In Europe today (and not only in Europe) societies are growing increasingly fearful and uncertain about the future. The unquestioned belief that a stronger union and integration of Europe with continued enlargement was not only inevitable but to everyone’s economic and social benefit has been shattered. This is leading people to put up walls—figuratively and physically—and try to protect one’s own narrowly-defined piece of the larger society.

Realizing the threats coming from this trends, what particular steps does the OSCE take to tackle the problem?

The existing positions in the OSCE, including my own and my colleagues, who serve as personal representatives on tolerance issues can raise attention and press individual governments to focus on these concerns. In some cases, they will take to heart the recommendations that are part of the official reporting. ODIHR is a critical resource to engage civil society and channel their concerns and recommendations into the practical measures that governments should take. These include the recently released guidelines on Jewish community security as well as expert meetings and conferences intended to promote intergroup dialogue, respect for freedom of religion and belief and teacher training materials.

Azerbaijan is one of the safest countries for different religions to live together in peace and harmony. What points would you underline in the example of Azerbaijan for preserving religious tolerance in different societies with multi-ethnic and multi-religious composition?

It is certainly true that Azerbaijan offers an important example of how various religious and ethnic groups coexist in a spirit of respect and cooperation. I can say this from my own personal experience of visiting the country multiple times over the past two decades. Some people may believe that diversity in religion and ethnicity can only lead to discord, so merely observing Azerbaijan up close can dispel this view. At its root, i believe, is the sense that each of these groups feel secure in their place in the country. This is a function of the dialogue and cooperation that goes back centuries—as we see in the Quba region—but also in a government policy that reinforces this message.

What types of co-existence efforts of Jews and Muslims in Azerbaijan would you highlight? For instance, Krasnoya Slaboda is home to one of the biggest Jewish communities in the world, while world's first museum of Mountain Jews will appear in Azerbaijan.

I have noted above the special nature of the Jewish-Muslim relationship to be found in the Quba region of Azerbaijan. Most people including Jews in the west are largely unaware of Krasnoya Slaboda, and it is a truly unique town. Of course today most of the mountain Jews, who once lived there have moved elsewhere. If they are still in the country they are now primarily in Baku, where the sense of acceptance and appreciation is still very real. Certainly, we can all benefit from presenting this living message of mutual respect and cooperation to an international audience, especially in this uncertain time.

Rabbi Andrew Baker is director of International Jewish Affairs at the American Jewish Committee (AJC), which he joined in 1979. A leading expert on anti-Semitism in Europe, he travels extensively to strengthen relations between the AJC and Jewish communities worldwide. Throughout most of the 1990s, as director of European Affairs, Rabbi Baker promoted tolerance in the emerging democracies of Central and Eastern Europe. He is active in Holocaust restitution issues and in 2003 was awarded the Officer's Cross of the Order of Merit by Germany for his work on German-Jewish relations.