Faith and Reason: Who is right and who is wrong?: Continuing our series on warring faiths, Felix Corley is sceptical about the World Council of Churches summit between the religious leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan.

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The Independent Online
As Nagorno-Karabakh's bitter war drags on into its fifth year, Armenia and Azerbaijan's top clerics are to hold interfaith talks. Will they do any good?

At the instigation of the World Council of Churches - always there to smother troubled waters with oil - the head of the Armenian Church, Catholicos Vazgen I, and Sheikh-ul-Islam Allahshukur Pasha Zade, head of the Azeri Muslim Community, are to meet. The talks will take place 'at a secret location', the WCC declares mysteriously.

This is in sharp contrast to the interfaith meetings of clerics from Bosnia which took place in a glare of publicity in the civilised surroundings of Geneva, a million miles from the ethnically cleansed villages, bombed-out homes and enforced brothels of the former Yugoslavia.

Who knows, perhaps Vazgen and Pasha Zade will be seduced by a civilised meeting to ignore the years of bitterness caused by the merciless war between their nations in the mountains of Karabakh. They may even be induced to restore the public love-in required of them - and of all religious leaders in the 'great family of Soviet peoples' - in the 1980s.

'I have affection and great respect for him,' said the youthful Sheikh-ul-Islam of the venerable Catholicos back in 1989, when the war over Karabakh was gearing up and the massacre of Armenians in Sumgait by Azeri mobs was just nine months old. 'I am certain that we both offer thanks to the Almighty for the fact that there is no enmity between our two religions.'

Vazgen too was effusive in his praise of the Sheikh in that halcyon year of 1989: 'He and I are friends,' he said disarmingly. 'We meet often.' And he continued: 'If I had the opportunity to see him again we would dwell above all on the misfortune that has befallen our people and on the manifestations of hostility between our two peoples.' (That's a curious way of putting it, 'dwelling on' the 'misfortune' that has 'befallen' us. Wars don't befall people, nasty people start them.)

And what would the two great leaders do when they met? 'I am certain it would be our desire,' the Catholicos declared, 'that these phenomena should be banished. It would be our obligation to convey to our peoples a desire for fraternity, co-operation and internationalism.' Well, four years later his dream will come true, he will sit down with his good friend and talk peace under the benevolent gaze of the WCC.

The atmosphere has, of course, soured somewhat after four more years of war, as the Azeris have continued their relentless drive to expel the Armenian community from land they have inhabited for centuries. Before 1988, Azeris too had inhabited the land for centuries, but the 80-per-cent Armenian population, not unexpectedly, had wanted to be rid of oppressive Azeri rule from Baku and be governed from Armenian Yerevan. Hence the war, which has seen unspeakable evil.

The Romanian-born Vazgen, now 86, was installed by the Soviets as Armenian Catholicos back in 1955. Pasha Zade, born in a village in southern Azerbaijan, became chairman of the Muslim Board of the Transcaucasus in 1980 - also at Soviet behest - at the tender age of 30.

Like all good Soviet officials, they devotedly followed government policies, adhering to the Soviet myth, enunciated by the late lamented Leonid Brezhnev in 1972, that the nationality problem in the Soviet Union had been 'solved' (sic). Indeed, Vazgen's devotion to the protective power of the Soviet state put him at serious risk of his position within Armenia: in 1988 demonstrators on the streets of Yerevan carried placards reading 'The Catholicos has crucified our Faith]'

Relations between the two top clerics have worsened of late. Last November the Sheikh attacked the Armenian church in general and Vazgen in particular at a stage-managed conference in Baku billed as an interfaith gathering but overwhelmingly made up of Muslims. The Sheikh personally blamed Vazgen for making the conflict worse and, allegedly, banning all dialogue with the Azeri Muslims.

Such little differences between the two will doubtless be smoothed over through the good offices of the WCC. Whether their meeting will make any difference to the refugees shivering on freezing mountainsides, women repeatedly raped and tortured or children bombarded with cluster bombs and missiles packed with nails, is anyone's guess.

I've been to the region many times, and I reckon the Armenians have 90 per cent of the right on their side, the Azeris 10 per cent. I have seen the terrible results of inhuman brutality, and people so demoralised they have come to expect little else. In a disgraceful press release in the wake of a WCC visit to Armenia and Azerbaijan in November and December last year, the WCC chose the easy option of ignoring who to blame.

As in Bosnia, the world has to take sides and see who is right and who is wrong. People - such as the feeble-minded individuals in the WCC - who cannot tell right from wrong are unlikely to do much good, however many cosy chats they can arrange. Sweet words will doubtless be exchanged at the clerical summit, but the two sides will return home and nothing will change.

Will the meeting do any harm? No, of course not. There is some point in trying to take the religious tension out of a conflict, but when Christian Armenians are fighting Muslim Azeris, this is well-nigh impossible. The war wasn't caused by religion - it is merely the badge worn by each side. The Armenian inhabitants of Nagorno-Karabakh demand support from the West not because they are Christians, but because of the injustice being done to them.

The naive but well-meaning efforts of the WCC can't do any harm, but whether that means they should bother is another question.

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