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Talks with Azerbaijani President ‘direct and challenging’, Archbishop Welby reports

02 October 2023

Francis Martin reports from Baku, Azerbaijan

Government of Azerbaijan

A photo of the meeting with Archbishop Welby, posted on the website of the President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev

A photo of the meeting with Archbishop Welby, posted on the website of the President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev

THE Archbishop of Canterbury met the President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, and other government officials in Baku on Monday, amid international tensions over the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh.

“The object of the meetings we had today was to begin to learn what the narrative of this conflict is from the view of the Azerbaijanis,” Archbishop Welby said.

“In the meetings, I emphasised the need for pursuing a stable and long-term peace, not only through a top-down peace agreement, but also beginning the long process of engaging with the suffering of ordinary people over the last 30 years, in order to avoid an endless cycle of violence.”

He told the Church Times that the talks were “very direct and challenging”.

The British Ambassador to Azerbaijan, Fergus Auld, who also attended the meetings, posted a photograph of the group on social media. The text, translated from Azerbaijani, read: “We emphasised the importance of ensuring humanitarian needs in Karabakh and peace with Armenia and the support of [the United Kingdom].”

On 19 September, Azerbaijan launched an assault, described by the government as anti-terrorist measures, on the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. A ceasefire was agreed 24 hours after the assault began.

BBC News has reported that at least 200 Karabakh Armenian, and dozens of Azerbaijani soldiers, were killed in the fighting. The area had been under blockade by Azerbaijan since last December.

The Bishops of Leicester, Southwark, and Leeds released a joint statement on 20 September, writing: “Our hearts grieve for all those caught up in the latest violence in Nagorno-Karabakh and we appeal for lasting peace.

“We pray for everyone whose lives and livelihoods are at risk, and those for whom this is the latest in a long and tragic cycle of suffering,” (News, 21 September).

In the days after a ceasefire was agreed, more than 100,000 people — amounting to about 80 per cent of Nagorno-Karabakh’s population — are reported to have left the enclave for Armenia.

On Sunday, Pope Francis called for talks between Azerbaijan and Armenia, and described the situation as a “humanitarian crisis”.

“I have been following the dramatic situation of the displaced people in Nagorno-Karabakh in recent days, and I renew my call for dialogue between Azerbaijan and Armenia,” he said.

Talks have taken place between the ethnic-Armenian leaders of the unrecognised Republic of Artsakh and Azerbaijan, including a new round of discussions which were due to begin this week.

Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan, but its cultural and political identity has long been a source of contention between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The countries have fought two wars over the territory in the past three decades, most recently in 2020, when Azerbaijan gained control of large portions of the area.

Azerbaijan officials say that 700,000 Azerbaijanis were displaced from the region after a war in the early 1990s.

In a speech on Monday, before his meeting with the Archbishop of Canterbury, President Aliyev said according to local media reports: “Now it’s time for peace in the Caucasus. This is our agenda.”

Earlier in the day, Archbishop Welby had met faith leaders from Azerbaijan, including the Grand Mufti of the Caucasus, Allahshukur Pashazadeh; the Chief Rabbi of the Ashkenazi Community, Rabbi Shneor Segal; and the chairman of the Mountain Jews community, Milix Yevdayev, at a lunch hosted by the British Ambassador.

Other appointments during the one-day visit to the capital of Azerbaijan — the first by a serving Archbishop of Canterbury — included meetings with the Foreign Minister and the chairman of the State Committee on Religious Associations.

President Aliyev has been the head of state in Azerbaijan since 2003. His father, Heydar Aliyev, was president from 1993 until 2003.

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