Religious diplomacy as de-escalation tool of Karabakh conflict

Religious diplomacy as de-escalation tool of Karabakh conflict

Baku, Azerbaijan, Sept. 5

By Alan Hope - Trend:

Russian capital will be hosting a new round of Nagorno-Karabakh negotiations. But this time the participants are not the presidents and foreign ministers, nor even the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs.

This time the problem will be addressed by the spiritual leaders of Azerbaijan and Armenia.
The Grand Mufti of the Caucasus Sheikh-ul-Islam Allahshukur Pashazadeh and the supreme head of the Armenian Apostolic Church Catholicos Karekin II are expected to attend the meeting mediated by the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill on Sept. 8 in Moscow.

The thesis of the non-governmental diplomacy devoted to the problems of conflict resolution has become very popular in the past decade. Western experts view the initiatives arising from the non-governmental sector, such as human rights and civic activists, as well as the spiritual leaders, as an effective resource for the reconciliation process. Nonetheless, justification of the expectations in the context of the Azerbaijani-Armenian religious diplomacy is yet to be seen.

Recently, there has been certain intensification in the process of diplomatic settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Outgoing OSCE Minsk Group co-chair Richard Hoagland’s latest speech, outlining his vision for the resolution of the ongoing conflict, had stirred things up. Prospects of a meeting between the Azerbaijani and Armenian Foreign ministers, at the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session, are being discussed. On the background of the occurring events, the expected meeting of Sheikh-ul-Islam and Catholicos may be viewed as a part of the diplomatic process’s revitalization.
It should be noted that, historically, religious diplomacy had played a significant role in the conflict settlements in Caucasus.

Not too long ago, in the absence of the official diplomatic relations between Russia and Georgia, the dialogue between the two Orthodox churches was, to some extent, used as a compensatory mechanism. Georgian Orthodox Church’s Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II frequently visited Moscow, maintaining friendly relations not only with the Moscow Patriarchate, but also with the Russian state officials. Taking into the account his high social status, these contacts were and still are considered of extreme importance.

Unlike the Russian state, the Moscow Patriarchy still does not officially recognize the religious structures of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, viewing them as canonical territories of the Georgian Church. In turn, the Georgian Orthodox Church does not support the Kyiv Patriarchate of Ukraine, considered “schismatic” by Moscow. Yet again, both Churches show a common stance when it comes to the relations with the Eastern Orthodox Church’s Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I.

On this note, the diplomatic activities of Sheikh-ul-Islam and Karekin II are equally important. Azerbaijani spiritual leader Allahshukur Pashazade has made a significant contribution to the amplification of his country’s ties with the Organization of the Islamic Conference. He is an active participant of the campaign aimed against the "unconventional Islam," focusing on the Muslims with the aspirations of participation in the jihadist movements.

On the other side, Karekin II, enjoying state’s favor, plays the role of an additional diplomatic channel for the interaction with the Armenian diaspora and Vatican. He also was instrumental in the creation of Armenia-Israel relations. Karekin II’s meeting with the chief Ashkenazi rabbi of Israel, Jonah Metzger, in 2003 became a prologue to the visit of Israeli delegation to Yerevan in 2005.

The Soviet experience, when the religious institutions acted in a rigid connection with the state bodies, as a part of the formation process of Sheikh-ul-Islam and Catholicos in becoming experienced politicians and diplomats, should also not be overlooked. Both were also involved in the disintegration vortex of the Union State and contributed to the state construction of post-Soviet Azerbaijan and Armenia.

The expected Moscow meeting will not be the first experience of a dialogue between Sheikh-ul-Islam and Catholicos. The initial meeting took place back in 1988, when Sheikh-ul-Islam met with then Catholicos Vazgen I, at the sidelines of the spiritual leaders’ congress in Rostov-on-Don. The second time their paths had crossed after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in the Swiss Montreux in 1993. With the mediation of the then Patriarch Alexy II Sheikh-ul-Islam had met with Karekin I in 1995, and his interim successor Karekin II in 2000 and 2001.

Within the framework of the World Religious Leaders’ Summit, held in 2010, the apostle of the Armenian Church had visited Baku for the first time. Karekin II not only participated in the summit, but also met with the Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. In the absence of any diplomatic relations between the two countries, this event was viewed as a sensation.

Sheikh-ul-Islam, in his turn, had visited Yerevan in 2011, and participated in the forum of the Interreligious Council of the CIS countries. Russian Patriarchy was instrumental in mediating both cases, proving that it has accumulated considerable experience regarding the Nagorno-Karabakh issue.

After all of the above mentioned meetings, the spiritual leaders would usually come out with the statements against the violence. Nonetheless, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is tinged with the idea of "nationalism," in which religion appears, rather, as an addition, and not the main argument. Moreover, Sheikh-ul-Islam and Karekin II, just like the civil and human rights activists, are a part of the conflicting societies, filled both with a great desire for peace, but also, with a notion of rejection on any compromises and concessions to the opposing side. Under such conditions, it is not surprising that the spiritual leaders’ rhetoric, along with calls for peace, is filled with some militaristic notes. Hence, since faith is placed in a subordinate position to the state loyalty, the spiritual leaders are limited by the latter’s demands.

In this regard, there are no serious grounds for believing that the meeting of Sheikh-ul-Islam and Karekin II will become a breakthrough in the conflict settlement. Nonetheless, no matter of the efficiency of such rendezvous, they will surely serve, presently, to the de-escalation of the ongoing conflict and might possibly lay grounds for the reconciliation process in the post-conflict era.

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