Holiday hope: A glimpse of Christians, Muslims at peace

Holiday hope: A glimpse of Christians, Muslims at peace
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Christian churches were attacked and burned just before Christmas Day 2017 in Egypt. Nothing new.

A friend of mine was once arrested in Saudi Arabia for possessing a Christian Bible. My best friend and partner wore an abaya whenever she left the American compound in Saudi Arabia but did not cover her blonde hair. Normally that wasn’t a problem, but whenever a conservative Saudi saw her hair, he would complain to the religious police, who would bother her for not covering her hair.

Imagine my surprise, then, a few days ago when I landed in Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital, at 4 a.m. Nothing, I thought, could possibly energize me after flying almost 17 exhausting hours and 7,232 miles from Los Angeles.

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Yet, a few hundred yards from the junction of the airport road and the main highway into the city, my eyes widened and my brain awoke: Here, in a country that is more than 95 percent Muslim, that was ravaged by hundreds of years of Russian and atheist Soviet autocratic rule, were a dozen reindeer made of wire and electric lights. A half-mile farther, a government-run SOCAR gas station was lit up with Christmas lights and decorations, including a Santa Claus.

“Christmas?” I exclaimed, “Really?” At 4 o’clock in the morning, I was staring at Christmas decorations — in a Muslim country surrounded by Muslim countries such as Iran, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Muslim Russian republics, and just two borders with Christian Armenia and Georgia.

All the way into Baku, you saw Christmas decorations. When I entered the lobby of my hotel, there was a 30-foot-tall decorated Christmas tree. Every table in the hotel’s restaurants had Christmas decorations.

I was stunned.

Later, I registered for the conference — “2017 - Year of Islamic Solidarity: Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue” — I was attending as a media representative. Attendees came from all over the world: the United States, Japan, Indonesia, India, Central Asia, Russia, Pakistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Greece, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, the Vatican and many European countries. I even met the Mufti of Bulgaria, an Islamic scholar who interprets and expounds on Islamic law.

Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, opened the conference. Translated into English, his words were tolerant and augured well for the conference; but he did point out that 20 percent of the country is occupied by Armenian forces that have ignored United Nations resolutions demanding their withdrawal.

Every other speaker but one joined President Aliyev in talking about peace, tolerance and co-existence. And why not? Azerbaijan is known for its tolerant environment among religions, its religious harmony among Sunni and Shia Muslims.

In a single day I visited a Russian Orthodox church in Baku as well as a Roman Catholic church, a Sunni Muslim mosque, a Shia Muslim mosque and a Jewish synagogue. North of Baku I visited two synagogues and a Shia mosque within sight of each other.

There is also an Armenian cathedral in Baku with more than 5,000 ancient Armenian books that the Azerbaijan government is maintaining pristinely. Other faiths function freely in Azerbaijan, including Bah’ais and Zoroastrians.

Russians were everywhere at the conference. Compounding the surprise of seeing so many Russians was trying to discern who was Greek Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox (Antioch rite) or Russian Orthodox. The priests all look alike with their beards, black robes and, sometimes, hats.

Muslims from Central Asia and China look different than Muslims from Bosnia, Chechnya, Pakistan and Indonesia; Christians from Egypt look different than those from Italy or California.

One of the Islamic solidarity conference speakers was Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center.

On the bus back to the hotel, we passed a gigantic Christmas-decorated downtown park on Baku’s principal boulevard; its holiday tree was at least 50 feet tall, surrounded by a modernist nativity scene complete with three wise men bearing gifts from the very area I was visiting. I was told that the decorations remain in place until the Epiphany, when the wise men appeared before the Christ child, on January 6.

I was stunned every time I saw these Christmas decorations in this Muslim-majority, yet secular, country, right up to my return to the airport — where we passed those wire-bodied reindeer led by one with a bright red nose.

Perhaps there is hope for this world after all.

Raoul Lowery Contreras is the author of “The Armenian Lobby & American Foreign Policy”and “The Mexican Border: Immigration, War and a Trillion Dollars in Trade.” His work has appeared in the New American News Service of the New York Times Syndicate.