Making his first visit to Arizona, Consul General Nasimi Aghayev of the Republic of Azerbaijan naturally went to the State Capitol to meet with state officials. Also on his agenda, however, was reaching out to the Valley’s Jewish community — via Jewish News and Temple Chai — to stress his country’s friendship with Israel and the United States, as well as the value of the Jewish community in his own country.
At the Capitol, Aghayev met with House Speaker Andy Tobin (R-LD1) to discuss building a strong trade partnership between Arizona and Azerbaijan.
“Arizona and Azerbaijan enjoy a mutual desire to explore potential economic ties that could strengthen our respective economies,” Tobin stated, in a press release. “The future of both Arizona and Azerbaijan rely on the ability of our respective business to access and compete in new markets... (Our) meeting is an important first step in solidifying this relationship.”
Aghayev also met with Arizona Senate President Andy Biggs (R-LD12), Sen. Linda Lopez (D-LD2) and Rep. John Kavanagh (R-LD23).
Aghayev took the time to meet with Jewish News to speak about his country’s connection with Israel, the United States and the Jewish community in Azerbaijan.
“I am honored that Mr. Aghayev and his office reached out to Jewish News and recognized us as the main source for reaching the Jewish community in Phoenix,” said owner and publisher Jaime Stern. “It is important for our community to know about and support other democratic countries that share our values and support Israel.”
The former Soviet republic, which gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, is a majority Muslim country in southwest Asia. Situated on the western shore of the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan borders Iran, Russia, Armenia, Georgia and Turkey (see map).
About 93.4 percent of its people identify as Muslim, although the CIA’s World Factbook notes, “Religious affiliation is still nominal in Azerbaijan; percentages for actual practicing adherents are much lower.”
Aghayev told Jewish News:
• Azerbaijan is a top trade partner with Israel providing over $4 billion of goods and 40 percent of Israel’s oil via pipelines through Turkey.
• Israel has provided technology and agriculture innovations to Azerbaijan, which has helped the development and growth of the country.
• After Sept. 11, Azerbaijan was the first country to open its skies to the United States and continues to provide overflight, refueling and landing rights to U.S. aircraft carrying 40 percent of all supplies sent from the United States to Afghanistan.
• In a predominantly Muslim country, this strong political and trade relationship with Israel has not been easy. Neighboring Iran has violently protested visits from Israeli political leaders and terrorist attacks against the Israeli Embassy and Jewish schools have been thwarted as recently as last January.
Despite the tension and political pressure, Azerbaijan is committed to a partnership and friendship with Israel and the United States, said Aghayev, because it helps build a stronger country.
“Azerbaijan is the most multiethnic country in the region,” said Aghayev, who said he believes this provides the country with its “richness.”
Out of the 9.6 million people living in Azerbaijan, 1 million are refugees from their native lands “as a result of the illegal occupation of Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized territories by Armenia,” he said. There are also migrants from Iran and China who moved to Azerbaijan to seek the ethnic and religious tolerance the country provides, he said.
A vibrant Jewish community has lived in the country for 1,500 years. Highland or Mountain Jews coming from Egypt and Iran, mostly of Persian descent, live in Red Village. This Sephardic Jewish community is home to two synagogues and is considered to be “the only completely Jewish town” outside of Israel, according to Aghayev.
Ashkenazic Jews from Europe and Russia have lived in the capital city of Baku since 1811. Four synagogues are spread across Baku. The most recent synagogue opening was in April 2011 and dignitaries from the United States, Turkey and Israel attended the opening in Baku.
The Jewish population represents a wide variety of occupations including factory workers, teachers and doctors in Azerbaijan, said Aghayev, who also noted that since the very beginning of Azerbaijan's independence 22 years ago, its parliament has had Jewish members.
Aghayev believes that one of the most important reasons his country needs to maintain strong ties to Israel and the United States is because it is the best way to remain a democratic state. The country has been able to develop agriculture and technology through economic support from both countries. He said that this has contributed to a dramatic drop in the poverty rate, which went from 50 percent in 2001 to just 6.5 percent in 2013.
The consulate is based in Los Angeles and is the only Azerbaijani consulate in the United States. Aghayev has served in his post since April 2012 and said he has developed strong relationships in the Jewish community in Los Angeles.
During his visit to Arizona, Aghayev also met with Rabbi Mari Chernow and Cantor Emerita Sharona Feller from Temple Chai in Phoenix.
“I really didn’t know much about Azerbaijan prior to our meeting, so it was a welcome opportunity to meet with (Aghayev) and hear about the country and their relationship with Israel and the United States,” said Chernow. “We spoke about how we can help him reach out to other Jewish institutions in Phoenix and possibly set up more meetings next time he is in town.”
Aghayev said he hopes to continue to build a strong relationship with the Jewish communities in the United States and hopes that the United States “remains actively engaged” in the Middle East and specifically Azerbaijan.
Jennifer Starrett is the marketing manager for Jewish News of Greater Phoenix.