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The Jews of Azerbaijan Enjoy Freedom, Republic Leader Says

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The Jews of Azerbaijan have full freedom of religion, the republic’s president, Heydar Aliyev, assured a visiting delegation this week.

That message, to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, was reinforced in a meeting with the chief Muslim cleric of the former Soviet republic, which is largely Muslim and borders Iran.

“Any relations that Azerbaijan may develop with Iran will not effect the friendly relations with the Jews of Azerbaijan,” said the religious leader, Hadj Alla Pashazade, according to a participant in the meeting.

The delegation, headed by JDC President Milton Wolf, was visiting at the request of the Azerbaijani president.

The JDC helps support two synagogues in the capital city of Baku, as well as the central Club of Jewish Culture, Club Aleph.

Since 1989, 16,000 Jews have left the country for Israel, but 30,000 remain.

The president said the Jews who left were not fleeing the state, as in other Soviet republics, but were being reunified with their families.

Azerbaijani Jews, he said, are “free and respected and live equal life without any limitations.”

For the president, as well as members of the Jewish community, a central concern was the war in Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian enclave in the middle of Azerbaijan.

Throughout Baku, the JDC visitors would see widows and bereaved mothers dressed in black. A central park has been turned into a cemetery, with thousands of new graves bearing photographs of the deceased soldiers.

In their meetings, the JDC officials were urged to inform the world of the “tragedy” of the war.

Wolf pledged immediate humanitarian aid, which will begin with a shipment of $10,000 worth of hard-to-obtain medicines for the hospitals.

For the JDC officials, the simple act of exchanging gifts was a window into the world on the border between the former Soviet Union and the Middle East.

They brought kiddush cups as a gift for the president — a former communist KGB general — and received, in turn, a tea set. They gave a silver-encased shofar to the cleric. He responded that his Islamic training had included the study of Talmud, and he that knew about the shofar and the Jewish holidays. He presented Wolf with a Azeri-language Koran and prayer rugs.

And from the Jews, some of whom traveled 500 miles for the Monday meeting, the visitors received as gifts swords, daggers and bayonets.

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