In Canada, an Azerbaijani Jewish Heritage Event Underlines Hope for Interfaith Dialogue

Stephanie Lazerte
All images provided by Network of Azerbaijani Canadians

For many Canadians, it is hard to imagine a place where Muslims and Jews live together as part of the same community. Yet Azerbaijan, where 95% of the population self-describes as Muslim, is home to one of the most celebrated and respected Jewish communities in Eurasia. These days Azerbaijan’s roughly 30,000 Jews mostly live in the capital Baku, but many trace their origins to the Caucasian foothills where Mountain Jews or Kavkazi (Caucasian) Jews have lived for centuries. Politically, Azerbaijan maintains a strong relationship with Israel. Israel was the first country to recognize Azerbaijan’s independence after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, and Israelis are one of the rare nationalities eligible to enter Azerbaijan without a visa.  


Meanwhile, in both Ontario and British Columbia, antisemitism is on the rise, with violent hate-crime incidents in Canada reportedly up 700% between 2020 and 2021. So it was, perhaps, timely that an effective alternative vision of interfaith relations could be showcased last night in the Toronto-suburban city of Vaughan, Ontario, co-organized by the Network of Azerbaijan Canadians and the United Grassroots Movement, a Jewish anti-hate activist organization.    


The meeting, which crossed right across Canadian political party boundaries, explained how for centuries, the Shia-majority population of Azerbaijan has been protecting its ‘Mountain Jews’ by grassroots common bonds. Though relatively small, the country’s Jewish community lived and still lives in an environment where their identity and history has been respected and honoured. In Baku, the capital, Jewish synagogues, orthodox churches, and mosques are within a stone’s throw of each other, with no need for special security measures. Indeed, speaking at the meeting Azerbaijani Rabbi Zamir Isayev of Baku’s Jewish School, Vaad, pointed out that in his homeland, “a Jew is not only not afraid but can live with pride” in a place of mutual respect and understanding, where Muslim friends are present at Hannukah feasts and neighbours refrain from cooking food on Jewish days of fasting to make observance easier. 


This Azerbaijani model, suggested local Liberal MP Francesco Sorbara, might be seen as a model for bridge building and interfaith co-existence between Jews and Muslims elsewhere. 


Conservative MP Philip Lawrence, the chair of the Azerbaijan-Canada friendship group, spoke of his recent trip to the essentially all-Jewish settlement of Qirmizi Qesebe near Quba in Azerbaijan. Almost unique outside Israel, this “Red Town” (to use its direct translation) is home to a fully functioning Jewish urban society as well as a relatively new Museum of Mountain Jews, while just across the river, Quba is overwhelmingly Muslim. Lawrence reported being impressed with the interfaith hospitality and warmth between the neighbouring communities.  


Conservative MP for Thornhill, Ontario, Melissa Lantsman, thanked the organizing groups for their “strong advocacy on behalf of freedom… human rights… and shared values,” while Liberal MP for York Centre, Ya’ara Saks remarked she could “think of no better model of social inclusivity, interfaith relations rooted in respect and compassion than the Azerbaijani community.” Other prominent figures praised work being done to build bridges between Muslims and Jews in Ontario.