Op/Ed By Raoul Lowery Contreras
We all traveled 16-17 hours by Boeing 777 jet from Los Angeles, CA to Istanbul, Turkey and on to Baku, Azerbaijan to attend the Baku International Humanitarian Forum where world-wide luminaries mixed together to discuss and experience the exciting and profound efforts towards more tolerance and attendant multiculturalism.
How often does one get to visit two synagogues, a summer facility larger than the more intimate winter one a block away both of which are in sight of a large Muslim mosque just across a river? And, though it was the Sabbath (Friday sundown until Saturday sundown) and few people were walking around, we toured through the Jewish Redtown section of Quba, Azerbaijan, where thousands of Mountain Jews live among Muslim neighbors in total harmony as they have for centuries. Azerbaijan is well over 95 percent Muslim with the majority being Shia.
A secular and tolerant Azerbaijan is not new, before the Soviet Union took control of the nascent Republic of Azerbaijan in the early 1920s, women were allowed to vote in the Republic even before they were allowed to vote in the U.S. Jews and Muslims shared cities and neighborhoods and also suffered at the hands of Russian Bolsheviks and their Armenian allies, the DASHNAKS- the radical Armenian political party formed in the 1880s founded with the goal of recreating a Greater Armenia.
The Russian Communists and Armenian radicals fomented a bloodbath that lasted for months and caused thousands of people to die. The contemporary New York Times reported in 1919 that over 12,000 Azerbaijani Muslims died at the hands of Bolshevik Communist and Armenian invading troops in Baku, the Azerbaijan capital and center of oil production. Around Quba, 200 kilometers to the north, thousands more, including 3,000 Mountain Jews, were killed by Bolshevik and Armenian DASHNAK troops.
A Commission was organized by the Republic of Azerbaijan and after extensive investigation of the 1918 bloodbath it reported its findings to the Paris Peace Conference of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. The facts are clear and were made even clearer to us on Saturday, October 1, when we visited a memorial built at the site of a huge mass grave of thousands of Muslim and Jewish Azerbaijanis accidently discovered a few years ago.
The Spanish-born Roman Catholic priest, the Guatemalan American Protestant Bishop and the American-raised (Ventura County, CA) South African-born Muslim Imam and this writer were stunned by the thousands of bones of the thousands of people killed that were dumped into a mass grave in 1918. We were more than stunned, we were temporarily speechless by the enormity of what we saw.
They were the victims of the Bolshevik and Armenian terrorists that invaded the Quba area almost one hundred years ago in an effort to conquer and hold the valuable farm area for far away Armenia (see attached photo). They failed, of course, but thousands died anyway.
In the wake of that bloody time, modern day Azerbaijan has risen from the ashes of the collapsed Soviet Union even more tolerant than it was in the first Republic of 1918.
Around the bustling oil-city of Baku “with a population of almost three million –one finds mosques, yes, but also finds a Russian Orthodox Church, a Roman Catholic Church, a German Lutheran Church and a Downton Baku synagogue.
Unlike the American Jewish community with Conservative, Orthodox and Reform communities, there is but a traditional Jewish community with a heavy Mizrahim presence by way of Persia after the Jews were expelled from Jerusalem in the 1st Century A.D. There are also some Eastern European Jews that are called Ashkenazi, nonetheless, the rabbi told us they are traditional Jews. Having taken my shoes off to enter his synagogue and to wear a yarmulke, I believe him that they are traditional.
Back to non-traditional Azerbaijan, not only are Jews living and working as part of the nation, some are doing very well. The Azerbaijan army has Jewish officers, the government has Jewish bureaucrats and the Azerbaijani Supreme Court even has a Jewish woman justice, Justice Tatyana Goldman. Let us remember that Azerbaijan is 95 percent Muslim.
Keeping that in mind, the world should also note that Pope Francis celebrated mass in Baku’s Roman Catholic Church just hours before this was written. Yes, a Roman Catholic Mass celebrated by the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church in 95 percent Muslim Azerbaijan two days after Baku’s International Humanitarian Forum.
The thousands of Muslims and Jews whose bones and skulls we saw in an excavated mass grave where they were discarded by Russian Communists and Armenian Dashnak terrorists a century ago did not die in vain.