Ilham Aliyev and Pope Francis addressed representatives of general public at Heydar Aliyev Center

President of the Republic of Azerbaijan and Pope Francis, who is paying a papal visit to Azerbaijan, have made speeches in front of representatives of the general public at the Heydar Aliyev Center.

Speech of President Ilham Aliyev

Your Holiness, dear Pope Francis!

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen!

First of all, Your Holiness, let me cordially welcome you and your delegation to Azerbaijan. You are welcome.

When meeting with you at the Vatican last year, I invited you to Azerbaijan. I am very pleased that you have accepted the invitation and are paying a visit to our country today. This visit is of great importance. It is a historic visit. He will make a huge contribution to the development of relations between Azerbaijan and the Vatican. This visit is important for all of the mankind, as it shows once again that the dialogue between civilizations lives on, continues to expand, and we are trying to give a new impetus to this dialogue.

The relations between the Vatican and Azerbaijan have been developing successfully for 24 years. As I have said, there have been reciprocal high-level visits. In 2012, the Vatican museums hosted an Azerbaijani exhibition dedicated to the 20th anniversary of our diplomatic relations. The Azerbaijani exhibition was the first exhibition of Muslim countries. Our ties are also supported by civil society organizations. In February last year, with support from the largest non-governmental organization of the South Caucasus, the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, the Saint Marcellino and Pietro’s catacombs of the Vatican were reopened after major overhaul and restoration. This great event showed again that our bilateral relations. At the same time, the strengthening of the interreligious and intercultural dialogue is a reality.

Representatives of all religions and ethnicities have lived in Azerbaijan in peace, dignity and friendship for centuries. This is also the case today. Regardless of the public and political system, our region has always been inhabited by different civilizations. Azerbaijan has always played the role of a bridge between the East and the West. It is both a geographical and spiritual bridge. Historical monuments of all religions are protected and restored in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan is a very ancient land. We are proud of the fact that one of the oldest mosques in the world, the Shamakhi Juma mosque built in 743, is located in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan is also home to one of the oldest churches in our region – the Church of Caucasian Albania. There is an ancient temple of fire-worshipers in Baku. At the same time, the state protects and restores Orthodox and Catholic churches and synagogues.

In 2008, a very significant event occurred in the history of Vatican-Azerbaijani relations. We celebrated the opening of the Baku Catholic Church in 2008. The Catholic Church was built in Baku back in 1912, but in 1934 this church and indeed all other religious monuments were destroyed by Soviet authorities. Mosques, Orthodox churches and synagogues were destroyed. The independent state of Azerbaijan decided to rebuild the Baku Catholic Church. Your Holiness conducted a service at this church this morning. This is a significant event. First of all, we have eliminated the historical injustice. On the other hand, it has been a great gift for the Catholics living in Azerbaijan.

The inter-religious, international and inter-ethnic relations in our country are exemplary. This is acknowledged not only by us. This is also confirmed by all foreign representatives who are familiar with Azerbaijani realities. We have put forward a number of initiatives, including the "Baku process", which has already gained a great reputation in the world. The "Baku process" began in 2008. Azerbaijan is one of a handful of countries that are members of both the Council of Europe and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. In 2008, we invited the Ministers of Culture of Islamic countries to the Baku Forum of Ministers of Culture of Council of Europe member-states. For the first time in history, a link was established between these two institutions, and this link was established by us. In 2009, we invited ministers from the Council of Ministers to the meeting of Ministers of Culture of Muslim countries in Baku. Thus, this process was called the "Baku process". Today, our country hosts numerous international events within the framework of the "Baku process". These include the summit of religious leaders of the world. Two days ago, the Fifth International Humanitarian Forum was completed in Baku and one of the main themes on its agenda was multiculturalism. The Forum on Intercultural Dialogue is held in Azerbaijan every other year.

These initiatives have one goal: cooperation among representatives of all religions and prevention of confrontation. Given our successful activities in this area, the UN decided to hold the Seventh Global Forum of the Alliance of Civilizations in Baku. This year we held this forum in Baku with great success.

Such events are first and foremost necessary for ourselves and our citizens, because they send a very positive message to our society. On the other hand, they are necessary for the whole world. Unfortunately, wars, conflicts and confrontation on religious and ethnic grounds are intensifying in various parts of the world. By putting forward such initiatives, we show that it is possible to live together. It is necessary to respect each other. Those who respect their own religion should definitely respect other religions.

This year has been declared a "Year of multiculturalism" in Azerbaijan. For us, multiculturalism is a way of life and our state policy. Azerbaijan plays an important role in promoting the ideas of multiculturalism in the world. Unfortunately, certain persons, politicians and leaders have expressed pessimistic thoughts in relation to multiculturalism, saying that multiculturalism has failed and has no future. This is an extremely dangerous misconception. We in Azerbaijan are proving that multiculturalism is alive, develops and leads our country forward. Azerbaijan is one of the addresses of multiculturalism. We are proud to be a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country. Representatives of all religions live with dignity in Azerbaijan. They are worthy citizens of our country who make a great contribution to our overall development.

In general, we are doing a lot in the humanitarian sphere. Great attention is being paid to education. The literacy rate in Azerbaijan is almost 100 per cent. Literacy is a barrier to extremism, radicalism and ignorance. Therefore, great attention is paid to the development of education in Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan has a rich cultural heritage, and it is the basis of our society. We are very committed to our national and spiritual values. At the same time, we are a modern and secular state. Azerbaijan is one of the countries of this region that stands out for modernity and development.

Unfortunately, our people have been faced with a humanitarian disaster. In the early 1990s, as a result of the military aggression of Armenia against Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh, which is our historical land, and seven adjoining districts were occupied by Armenian armed forces. Our citizens, one million Azerbaijanis, became refugees and IDPs in their native land. Twenty per cent of our land is under occupation. We have been exposed to a policy of ethnic cleansing. The Khojaly genocide was perpetrated against our people, and it is officially recognized by 10 countries now. The OSCE has sent two fact-finding missions to the occupied lands. The reports of these missions are horrifying. All our historical and religious monuments have been destroyed by Armenia. Our mosques and graves have been destroyed and museums looted. In the meantime, we have restored an Armenian church in Baku. This church currently stores more than 5,000 books in the Armenian language. This is the difference. Here are their actions and here is our attitude. It is therefore no coincidence that Azerbaijan is known in the world as a center of multiculturalism.

As far as the settlement of the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict is concerned, it must be settled within the framework of international law. The UN Security Council, the world’s top organization, has adopted four resolutions on the conflict, which provide for an immediate and unconditional withdrawal of Armenian armed forces from our lands. Unfortunately, these resolutions are not being fulfilled and our lands have been under occupation for more than 20 years.

The Armenia-Azerbaijan Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, as well as all other conflicts, must be resolved within the framework of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of countries. As I mentioned, our country and people are badly affected by this conflict. In the early 1990s, our population was 8 million people, of whom one million were refugees and IDPs. We have been coping with this humanitarian disaster on our own. Our country develops despite that. This month we will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the restoration of our independence. Over these years, Azerbaijan has covered a long and glorious road. We enjoy great respect in the international arena. Several years ago, 155 countries of the world voted for Azerbaijan and elected us a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council.

In the last 13 years our economy has tripled. Poverty and unemployment have dropped to 5 per cent. Numerous social projects are implemented in Azerbaijan. We have built a modern state. Today, Azerbaijan optimistically marks the 25th anniversary of the restoration of its independence because we have proved to the world that we can live as a free and independent country, and live well. Azerbaijan is the birthplace of all the peoples living in our country. Azerbaijan stands firmly on its feet. We are a modern, secular and developing country open to cooperation.

Your Holiness, your visit to Azerbaijan is a historic event for us. It is a great honor for us. This morning you conducted a service at the Catholic Church. After this meeting, you will visit the largest mosque of our country – the Heydar mosque. You are sending a clear message to the world from Baku that multiculturalism, inter-religious dialogue, good intentions and good relations should prevail.

During today's meeting, I expressed my gratitude to you and said that by paying this visit to Azerbaijan you have attracted worldwide attention. The eyes of your followers on all the continents, everyone who supports you are focused on Baku. They are getting acquainted with our country and city. They see that there is a modern, secular and developing country in the world, in the Muslim world. They see that the head of the world's Catholics, His Holiness Francis is in Baku. On behalf of all the Azerbaijani people, I want to thank you again for this. I wish you good health and continued success. Thank you.



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