Category: Tematic



For a long time, on the agenda of Azerbaijan, it has been discussed a problem of teaching the basics of religion in schools. In March of 2002, Rafiq Aliyev, at that time a Chairman of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organizations (SCWRO), pointed out that the study “Rudiments of religion” would be taught in the secondary schools in Azerbaijan starting from a new academic year. At the beginning, the teaching was going to be optional, or some schools should be chosen for this purpose. Then he added that SCWRO and the Ministry of Education would be debating that question.

However, the Ministry of Education, referring to the secular nature of the school system and the lack of qualified teaching staff in this area, did not agree with this initiative at the time.

  In 2004, this subject was again raised during the conference “Islam and Youth: Education, Science and Enlightenment” organized by the Heydar Aliyev Foundation in Baku. For this reason, the Minister of Education, M. Mardanov, did not dare to reject that idea and was therefore ready to include the teaching of religion in the school curriculum in the following academic year. In a meanwhile, he also mentioned that there was not enough teaching theology staff. The same situation was repeated in the period from 2007 to 2009 when the Minister of Education first assured that religious education would be included in the school education process from the first to eleventh grades. However, some time later the Ministry of Education issued a rebuttal of that idea.

After that, the leaders of the Ministry of Education and SCWRO have been changed many times, though teaching religion as a separate subject (but under different names, such as “History of Religion”, “Knowledge of the World” and “Religious Studies”) was raised again and again but decision had been postponed due to various reasons.

It seemed, that Azerbaijani society had already got used to all this. The authorities also believed so, but on April 29, 2019, the Head of SCWRO, Mubariz Qurbanly, quietly stated  in his speech at the Caucasus Board of Muslims (CBM) that the “Introduction to Multiculturalism” would be taught as the main discipline in higher education institutions starting from a new school year, which was previously studied optionally. He further specified that the textbooks on the mentioned subject are being compiled under the guidance of the Department of interethnic relations, multiculturalism and religious topics under the administration of the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan at the Baku International Multiculturalism Center in cooperation with the State Committee on Work with Religious Organizations. The textbook has two parts: a section discussing multiculturalism and a section covering religion and national moral values.

However, Qurbanly’s statement literally triggered an explosion in Azerbaijani society. As a result, the SCWRO press service urgently distributed a press release, in which they explained the statement of their head in details. It indicated that the objective of including the subject in the curriculum was to provide students with an overview of all religions, with an emphasis on Islam, the national moral values of the country, the need to protect such values and the policy of the State of Azerbaijan in this regard. Students will also be informed about religious radicalism, radical religious movements and their methods of propaganda. Particularly it was specified that among the authors of new textbook there were state structures’ employees, theologians, teachers of higher education and other authors of the relevant profile.

As for the secondary school, it was underlined that all necessary measures were undertaken to form the younger generation in accordance with the national and moral values of the Azerbaijani people. At the same time, for several years now, the subject “Knowledge of life” (in Azerb. Hayat bilgisi) has been taught at secondary schools. This discipline offers students knowledge of religion, among many other subjects. Nowadays, work is under way to expand the theme of religions in the curriculum of this subject. In other words, it is not a question of teaching religion in secondary school, but of broadening the horizons of schoolchildren in this field and obtaining primary knowledge about the religion.

However, this information did not have any impact on the public debate. And then a statement was made by the Ministry of Education’s management, which confirmed that starting from the next academic year, pupils in grades 4-8 will be taught on the basis of the new textbook “Knowledge of Life”, but that the issue of studying religion in secondary schools as a separate subject is not on the agenda.

With regard to post-secondary institutions, it was underlined that such disciplines as «Religious Studies” and “Islam Studies”, “History of Religions” have been already taught. At the same time, in accordance with the order of the Minister of Education, Jeyhun Bayramov, “On Amendments in Educational Programs of the Bachelor’s Degree”, the subject “Introduction to Multiculturalism” at the bachelor’s level will be included in the program “History of Religions” starting from the academic year 2019-2020. Later on, the SCWRO and the Ministry of Education representatives emphasized that these innovations were focused on preventing the radicalization among young people.

These announcements have caused even more controversy and debate in society. Secularists and politicians assured that there had been no problems with religion in Azerbaijan, but there were problems in radicalizing certain groups of believers. But in this case, the authorities should be working with them specifically to prevent their radicalization. And not make the entire society vulnerable to the authorities’ primitive perception of the situation. In society, the secularists declared that they opposed the teaching of religious subjects in schools. And they paid particular attention to the fact that Azerbaijan is a secular country and religion is separated from the state. Therefore, neither religion should interfere in state affairs nor the state should interfere in religious affairs. At the same time, many people were particularly outraged that the Ministry of Education terminated the teaching of astronomy in Azerbaijani schools back in 2010. And now it is decided to teach religion in a secular state!

These government intentions have reminded many people of the Soviet attempts to control religious ideology through their own form of official Islam. “As we know from the Soviet past, this approach does not solve the problems of radicalism,” said Altay Geyushov, the Head of the Baku Research Institute. ” In other words, we are going to repeatour previously unsuccessful experiment.”

Elmir Mirzoyev, a famous composer and historian, concluded “Congratulations to everyone, we are one step closer to the Middle Ages. The mandatory religious course will be taught at school. Good for us”.

They were objected to by believers who said that teaching religion would help to strengthen moral values in society and prevent radical forces from luring inexperienced youth into their networks. And it is better to teach religion than to teach promiscuity that flourishes widely in the media and on television.

Of course, the authorities paid close attention to these discussions. Over and over again, the politicians claimed that “talking about religion at school does not mean teaching the religion as such”. Moreover, they pointed out, religious studies have been included in the curricula of public schools in many secular Western countries and this does not cause any controversy.

The authorities are right about that. Indeed, the Council of Europe once studied the experience of religious education in secondary schools in many countries of the continent. According to the research results, the level of teaching of the subject was not in compliance with the European standards and did not contribute to the education of tolerant attitude to other people’s religious beliefs in majority of countries. Taking into account the importance and necessity of the subject, the Council of Europe decided to continue teaching religious studies at school but on the basis of the requirements.

However, it is not to propagate any particular beliefs but to facilitate better comprehension between members of certain faiths, as well as atheists. “Ideally, children should be taught a course of the history of religion, in which secular teachers will familiarize them with all the major world religions, their philosophy, culture and rites,” the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe said in its report.

Monastery complex Keshikchi Dag

Monastery complex Keshikchi Dag (David Gareja) and a conflict on the Azerbaijan-Georgia border

Arif Yunusov

The Monastery complex Keshichki Dag (Georgian – David Gareja)

In 2019, the fierce disputes between Azerbaijan and Georgia broke out with renewed vigour over the VIth century A.D. monastery complex, located high in the mountains on the border between the two countries. In fact, it is a unique mountain-carved small town of 25 km long, which includes 21 medieval monasteries with around 5,000 cells and various rooms where monks and hermits still live today. There is a fortress on the very top of the mountain. The Georgians call this complex “David Gareja” (in honour of the Syrian VIth century monk), while the Azerbaijanis named it «Keshikchi Dag” (“Watchtower Mountain”). If the first ones see it as an important religious center and a national cultural monument, whereas the second ones consider it a part of their cultural heritage and say that among other things, it is located at an altitude of strategic importance, hence, the name of the fortress.

In Soviet times, there was no need for a strict border demarcation, which existed technically only on the map. Moreover, at that time the area had been a military training ground for the Soviet army, where there had been conducted military exercises and artillery firing, which made the access to most of the monastery complex prohibited.

This issue became very important only after Georgia and Azerbaijan declared their independence. And rather soon, in 1996, the parties began negotiations on the border determination, for which they established the Georgian-Azerbaijani State Commission on Border Delimitation and Demarcation. Very promptly, the parties agreed on 314 kilometers out of the 480 kilometers of the interstate border, yet, the matter stagnated for a long time because of the remaining 166 km where was located this monastery. Long and fruitless disputes between the parties unfolded over some period of time. The problem is that the monastery complex consists of three parts. One of which with the main monastery of David Gareja is on the Georgian territory. Whereas on the Azerbaijani side there are two monasteries (the monastery Udabno on the mountain slope, and the monastery Bertubani is 2 km away from the border), about 40 cells and the Keshikchi Dag fortress where there is currently a post of the Azerbaijani border troops. In other words, 95 per cent of the complex is located on the territory of Georgia but the strategic altitude is controlled by Azerbaijan.

In the course of the negotiations, the Georgian side proposed an option of exchanging territories. However, the Azerbaijani authorities rejected it. All strategic heights are on the territory interested by Georgians, and from which a considerable part of the two countries’ land is easily observable. In its turn, Azerbaijan proposed to preserve the borders that remained from the Soviet inheritance and use this monastery complex as a tourist center for worshippers. But now the Georgian side, especially the Georgian Orthodox Church, was categorically against this idea.

Despite the negotiation process in effectiveness, as a matter of fact the issue has been put aside for many years. Priests and tourists were able to visit David Gareja from the Georgian side and also by crossing over to a part of the Azerbaijani side, without any passport control or restrictions.

Obviously, the problems in inter-state relations have occasionally occurred because of the unsolved boarder issue. In May 2007, after have met with Ilham Aliyev, the former Georgian leader, Mikhail Saakashvili, said that an agreement had been reached on the monastery complex that would be within Georgia territory. That provoked indignation and a strong rebuttal in Baku. Moreover, on 19 December 2007, Ilham Aliyev signed the decree announcing the Keshikchi Dag cave complex, which covers a vast area of up to 25 km along the Azerbaijan-Georgia border, as a State Historical and Cultural Landmark.

After the Georgian-Russian war in August 2008, the problem with the monastery complex has been on the back burner. Although the representatives of the Georgian-Azerbaijani commission had occasionally been meeting, though in vain, and those meetings ceased after 2011. The change of power in Georgia and the political turmoil ultimately postponed the problem to a distant future.

In early 2019, it was unexpected new sharp turn of the interstate relations aggravation due to the monastery complex matter. On the 27 February 2019, Georgia’s new President Salome Zurabishvili paid an official visit to Azerbaijan and, following the negotiations with Ilham Aliyev, stated that the parties had decided to provide instructions to the border delimitation commission in order to resume work and, finally to establish an official border that should rather unite two friendly states than separate them. 

At first, the Georgian president’s statement did not cause any particular concern in Azerbaijan. But then it happened something that some time later the Georgian Parliament Chairman Irakli Kobakhidze called Salome Zurabishvili’s “counterproductive improvisation”: on April 20th, she arrived in David Gareja and during a meeting with the Georgian border guards stated that the monastery complex belongs to Georgia and this issue would be positively resolved with Azerbaijani side by the end of the year.

In Azerbaijan, that statement of the President of Georgia was regarded as an open political challenge. Following S. Zurabishvili’s “improvisation” there were other Georgian officials statements, as well as politicians’, priests’, and harsh publications in the Georgian media. And all this against the background of pro-Armenian actions in Georgia (erection of monument to an Armenian solder fighting in Karabakh, etc.), which caused irritation in Azerbaijan and thus only worsened the situation.

The reaction of the Azerbaijani side followed right away: on 23 April Azerbaijani border guards blocked the road to the Udabno monastery and did not allow clergy, believers and tourists to visit it. Of course, this immediately caused a sharp surge of indignation in Georgia which followed with anti-Azerbaijani statements and protests. The reaction was similar in Azerbaijan. Two days later the negotiations between the Ministries of Foreign Affairs of Georgia and Azerbaijan, the border guards opened the border. But the genie was let out of the bottle. Things rapidly grew heated.

In Georgia, a social movement to defend the monastery complex began. On 05 May several hundred activists came to the David Gareja Monastery from the Georgian side and organized a “live chain” on the slope of the mountain; they were standing holding hands for several hours. At the same time, anti-Azerbaijani and anti-Muslim calls were heard, though, soon the Georgian Patriarchate warned to abstain from making such statements.

In response, the Azerbaijani authorities increased the number of border guards at this border point, and also paved the way to the monastery complex. And then, they also organized a “live chain”.

Living Chains” of Georgians and Azerbaijanis around the monastery complex

The situation continued to escalate and only after that the authorities of both countries decided to return to the border issue discussion of border: on 03 May 2019, the President of Azerbaijan reassigned Khalaf Khalafov to the post of Deputy Foreign Minister, despite the fact that he was dismissed from the very same post five months prior his reassignment. Khalafov was also appointed to the post of the president’s Special Envoy for Border Issues. After an eight-year hiatus, the Georgian-Azerbaijani intergovernmental commission on delimitation and demarcation of the state border took place in Baku on 23-24 May. The parties agreed to carry out a joint experts’ inspection of the uncoordinated efforts concerning some border sections and resume negotiations afterwards.

But the situation remained tense. Georgian clergy, believers and civil society activists continued protesting and “live chains” in the monastery complex area under the slogans “Gareja is Georgia”. Also, the demonstrations took place in the capital of Georgia, Tbilisi.

On 14 July a serious incident occurred: a group of Georgian activists climbed a hill at the section of the Georgian-Azerbaijani border in dispute by the both countries authorities and attacked Azerbaijani border guards, accusing them of removing icons from the cells of the Udabno monastery and using some of the chapels carved into the rocks as a toilet. Fortunately, the Azerbaijani border guards maintained their restraint and did not use weapons, which would certainly have had serious consequences for the two states.

But the state of Azerbaijan could not remain silent and pursued with a tough statement issued by the State Border Service; moreover, the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry regarded these incident as a provocation and called the Ambassador of Georgia for official explanations.

After that, the Border Police Deputy Teymuraz Kupatadze stated that due to the worsening weather there was a risk of damaging icons in the Udabno monastery. In order to avoid accusations against them, the Azerbaijani border guards took the icons out of the monastery and handed them over to the Georgian border guards. He further indicated that the cells were used as toilets by Georgian tourists and believers who had previously visited those places, while the Azerbaijani border guards just cleaned them. He also added that the parties made a decision to close access to the Udabno monastery cells starting from July, 14 for one week in order to maintain a calm situation at the border and cool down the protesters’ fervour.

However, the Azerbaijani side did not stop there and increased the number of border guards, improved the road and the necessary infrastructure. On October 7, the State Border Guard Service of Azerbaijan put into operation a new frontier post “Keshikchi Gala” on the specified section of the border with Georgia, which is to protect the cave and temple complex “Keshikchi Dag”.

Azerbaijan Border Guard Station “Keshikchi Gala”

At the same time, the Georgian side increased their border guards number. For security reasons and to avoid new incidents, the movement of pilgrims and tourists was seriously limited.

Only after that a new round of negotiations on this issue became possible: the Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia made his first official visit to Azerbaijan to discuss the existing problems. On the eve of his visit, the Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia Ilia II addressed the Prime Minister, as well as the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Minister of Internal Affairs of Georgia with a request, during the meeting, to solve the problem of banning visits to the monastery complex with the Azerbaijani leadership. He also sent a copy of his letter to the Sheikh-ul-Islam Allahshukur Pashazade, the head of the Caucasus Muslims Department.

On 10 October it was officially announced that starting from the 11 October Azerbaijan would open an access for believers and tourists to the monastery complex on its territory. Thus, the parties restored the status quo and decided to continue negotiations on the delimitation and demarcation of the border.

What are the conclusions?

We cannot definitely expect that Azerbaijan will give its consent to transferring the disputed part of the monastery complex to the Georgian side. The option of the territory exchange is not acceptable alternative for Azerbaijan in view of questionable military and political reasons. It is also clear that the problem should be solved in the legal sphere and based on international practice.

The dispute between Georgia and Azerbaijan is reminiscent of the conflicts over religious shrines in the Middle East. For example, in Syria there is the Cave of the First Blood (Magara ad Damme) in Damascus, where, according to the legend, the first man, Adam, lived and where Cain killed Abel and thus committed the first murder in the history of mankind. Both Christians and Muslims make pilgrimages there. And 50 km from Damascus there is the tomb of Abel, that constantly visited by pilgrims from Iran. An even more illustrative example is the solution to the problem of visiting religious shrines (Jewish, Christian and Islamic) in Israel and Palestine. All the shown examples are in the region where there are wars and conflicts, whereas Azerbaijan and Georgia are friendly and strategic partners. So, it means that this problem could be resolved taking into account the believers’ interests and both states concerns.