Sheikh Ul-Islam Allahshukur Pashazade, officially known as the Grand Mufti of the Caucasus and spiritual leader of the Muslims in Azerbaijan and all Caucasus, has held his title for 44 years, having risen during the days of Soviet rule.

He acknowledged in Salt Lake City on Friday that Soviet Communist propaganda may have influenced his negative feelings toward the United States for many years of his service, particularly after visiting New York City, Washington and Los Angeles and finding them “messy and not comprehensive.”

But he has since changed his mind, and trips such as the one to Utah this week, at the invitation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, have helped. 

“Now, I say to myself, I wish I had visited Utah before,” he told reporters Friday through an interpreter.

The Grand Mufti is considered the spiritual leader of Muslims in Azerbaijan; the Republic of Georgia; and Dagestan, Kabardino-Balkaria, Ingushetia, Chechnya, Karachay-Cherkessia and Adygea in the Russian Federation. 

Religious tolerance

During his visit, he met with Utah’s legislative leaders, with Gov. Spencer Cox, and with the First Presidency and other leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He and his traveling delegation were introduced on the floor of the Utah Senate on Tuesday, shortly after their plane arrived, and lawmakers there passed a resolution honoring Azerbaijan for its efforts “to increase religious tolerance within their country and the values of interfaith cooperation.”

It wasn’t the first time Utah lawmakers honored the nation. In 2014, both houses of the Utah Legislature passed a resolution recognizing Azerbaijan as being, in the post-Soviet world, “the first country to have democratic traditions in the Turkic world and Muslim East and one of the first countries to grant suffrage to women.”

That theme of tolerance and interfaith cooperation and understanding dominated the visit. Through the Grand Mufti, the president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, extended greetings to Utah’s religious and political leaders. The visit was only the latest of several interactions between Azerbaijan, Utah and the church in recent years.

The Grand Mufti said “relations between Azerbaijani religions and the church in Utah will grow,” as will “relations between our two states.”

The Grand Mufti described his meeting with the First Presidency as “unforgettable.” 

President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints speaks with Sheikh Ul-Islam Allahshukur Pashazade, the Grand Mufti of the Caucasus, earlier this week in Salt Lake City. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

“I wish to the First Presidency the blessings from the Almighty to serve … as long as possible,” he said.

Elder Jack Gerard, a General Authority Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said the church was thrilled by the visit. “He’s a very important religious leader, but has become a good friend of the church,” he said of the Grand Mufti.

“We share the same thinking. We share the same religious values with the Grand Mufti and with his delegation, and we were just honored that they would honor us with their presence,” Elder Gerard said. “We have found a great friend in the Azerbaijanis.”

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The 2014 resolution also said, “It is emphasized that the United States and Azerbaijan share common values regarding democracy, human rights and universal freedoms.”

This week’s visit continued that theme, and it had both spiritual and practical overtones. 

The Grand Mufti traveled with a delegation of various faith leaders, highlighting Azerbaijan’s harmony among Muslims, Christians and Jews. But government leaders were part of the delegation, as well. They spoke of how the visit was meant to strengthen religious, cultural and business ties.

Khazar Ibrahim, Azerbaijan’s ambassador to the United States, said he has met with Utah’s business leaders in the past and he hopes this meeting will further strengthen trade relations with the Beehive State, particularly in the field of technology. He noted that Utah is a high-tech leader in the United States, adding, “also, that makes it a global leader.”

He also spoke about educational exchange opportunities.

“We already have some practical suggestions to work on dual degree exchange programs among students and faculties from different universities in Utah and in Azerbaijan,” he said. 

He noted that Brigham Young University offers a course in the Azerbaijani language, which he said will help with cultural and religious understanding. He said there could be scholarships available to help Utah students visit and study in Azerbaijan.

Ibrahim emphasized the many things Utah and Azerbaijan have in common “in terms of tolerance, multiethnicity, multiculturalism, multifaith and also because it’s about harmony. The world lacks that right now.”

Members of the delegation said the visit could result in some practical improvements for Azerbaijan, as well. Sahib Novruz oglu Nagiyev, the deputy chair of the state committee on Religious Associations, said through an interpreter that he was particularly impressed by what he saw at the church’s Welfare Square.

In particular, he noted that the church welfare program is available not just to members of the faith but to all who may need help.

“I can say only, applause,” he said. “We, in our turn, will think about this example and model and will try to practice it in Azerbaijan.”

The Grand Mufti said warm relations between Utah and Azerbaijan were bolstered during the administration of Gov. Gary Herbert, who signed a letter in 2015 condemning the Khojaly massacre committed by Armenia against Azerbaijani civilians in 1992. The Grand Mufti said this was of great importance to Azerbaijan.

“The state of Utah was the very first state of the United States who recognized our very painful recent history,” he said. “Azerbaijan will never forget the support of Utah.”

The delegation is scheduled to return to Azerbaijan on Saturday.