Azerbaijan, Israel maintain unlikely tiesSource : http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/n.php?n=azerbaijan-israel-unlikely-allies-2011-06-03
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Friday, June 3, 2011
BAKU - Agence France-Presse
Men swathed in embroidered shawls rock back and forth reverentially as they murmur morning prayers in Hebrew at a smart modern synagogue built for them by the state in the heart of Muslim Baku.
Despite Azerbaijan's majority Shiite population, the government has funded the construction of two new synagogues in Baku in recent years, and maintains warm relations with Israel that have angered its Islamic neighbor, Iran.
Near the entrance of the synagogue is a photograph of the ex-Soviet state's powerful leader, İlham Aliyev. According to the leader of Baku's Ashkenazi Jewish community, Gennady Zelmanovich, "there have never been signs of anti-Semitism in Azerbaijan."
Some analysts suggest however, the lack of overt prejudice is partly because the country's Jewish population is so small as to be virtually invisible.
Tens of thousands of Azerbaijani Jews immigrated to Israel after independence in 1991 and only around 30,000 remain in a country, which emerged as one of the most secular in the Muslim world after decades of Soviet rule.
Energy-rich Azerbaijan's relationship with Israel is a pragmatic one, based on the export of oil and the import of weapons and military technology. Trade turnover between the two countries last year amounted to $1.8 billion.
"Each country finds it easy to identify with the other's geo-political difficulties and both rank Iran as an existential security threat," said a diplomatic cable from the United States embassy in Baku published by WikiLeaks.
The country needs Israeli weapons to help build up its military amid its continuing conflict with Armenia over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, a constituent part of Azerbaijan, which has been occupied by Armenia since the end of 1994. While internationally recognized as Azerbaijani territory, the enclave has declared itself an independent republic but is administered as a de facto part of Armenia. Aliyev has vowed to win back control over Karabakh, by force if necessary, from the ethnic Armenian separatists who seized it during a war that took place between 1988 and 1994 and led to the occupation of the region by Armenia, the deaths of more than 30,000 and the creation of nearly 1 million refugees.
Baku has bought hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of battlefield hardware, military communications technology and unmanned drones, according to Israeli media.
"Israel's world-class defense industry with its relaxed attitude about its customer base is a perfect match for Azerbaijan's substantial defense needs, which are left largely unmet by the United States, Europe and Russia," the leaked U.S. embassy cable said.
Azerbaijan does not have an embassy in Israel because it does not want to offend its Muslim partners in the Organization of the Islamic Conference, analysts suggest, although Israel does have an embassy in Baku and was one of the first to recognize the country's independence.
"Israel is in need of friendly relations with Muslim countries," said Elhan Şahinoğlu, director of the Baku-based Atlas political research center, adding that the Jewish state also backs Azerbaijan over the emotive issue of Karabakh.
"Unlike in Europe, there has been no suppression of Jews in Azerbaijan's history, while Israel has always supported Azerbaijan's territorial integrity," the analyst said.
Islamic activists however complain that while the authorities fund the construction of synagogues, they have closed several mosques, arrested suspected Islamists and prohibited the wearing of the hijab in schools as part of attempts to stamp out religious extremism.
Muslim campaigners also want the Israeli embassy in Baku to be shut down in an act of solidarity with the Palestinian cause.
"We have always said the regime in Israel is not only against Muslims but against all of humanity," said Akif Geydarli of the banned Islamic Party. "Azerbaijan's friendship with such a country is unacceptable."
Armenia also accuses Azerbaijan of intolerance because the country's large ethnic Armenian population fled when hostilities in Karabakh began in the early 1990s amid bloody outbreaks of inter-ethnic violence.
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