- - Thursday, March 17, 2016

The reopening of ancient trade routes between East and West is putting Azerbaijan literally at the crossroads of a potential major shift in the global economic pecking order. And that’s putting a spotlight on the Muslim-majority nation’s small but vital Jewish community.

The small but thriving base of Judaism in Azerbaijan, officials say, is a significant marker of pluralism in an oil-rich majority Shia nation of 9.3 million wedged between the Islamic Republic of Iran on its southern border and Russia on its northern flank — and one that merits U.S. support.

For Azerbaijan, “having a close and trusted partner in the United States is essential to maintaining its current orientation,” David Harris, chief executive officer of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), told The Washington Times in an email. “Otherwise, the relentless pressure of larger neighbors could well affect its world view.”

Despite concerns over its human rights record, Azerbaijan is among the rare Muslim-majority countries that enjoy good ties with Israel and the U.S. The government sent peacekeeping units to Iraq during the U.S. combat mission there and continues to be a supply country for American military stationed in Afghanistan.

Arms flows from Israel to Azerbaijan include a $1.6 billion transaction involving the sale of weapons by Israel Aerospace Industries to Azerbaijan in 2012, according to The Jerusalem Post. Israel is also a major purchaser of oil and gas from Azerbaijan through the Caspian Sea pipeline passing through Turkey.

A popular tourist destination is the Jewish enclave known as the Red Village, 105 miles northeast of the capital, Baku. The community is of ancient origins, according to Yevda Abramov, a lifelong resident and a member of Azerbaijan’s parliament. It is home to 6,500 so-called “Mountain Jews,” who are proud of their two Jewish congregations, their yeshiva and nine other synagogues in various stages of architectural restoration.

The Mountain Jews are not the only surviving Jewish community among the dozens that once dotted the Silk Road networks through the Caucasus or Central Asia, but they are among the most prominent. Although waves of Jews emigrated to Israel after 1948, small Jewish communities flourish in Georgia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and even Iran.

Mr. Abramov says the harsh international criticism of his country’s human rights record — the international watchdog group Freedom House rates the country as “unfree” — doesn’t tell the whole story.

“Our government seeks to create a tolerant society, not only for Jews but for the 22 national minorities in this country,” he says, adding that “it is so unfair that Azerbaijan’s human rights record is being compared to that of some African dictatorships.”

Rep. Christopher H. Smith, New Jersey Republican and a leading voice on Capitol Hill for human rights, last December introduced the Azerbaijan Democracy Act, calling for sanctions against Baku for gross violations of human rights and for jailing dissident journalists, citing in particular the 71/2-year prison sentence given to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty investigative reporter Khadija Ismayilova last year.

“The human rights situation has seriously deteriorated in Azerbaijan, causing damage to its relations with the United States and other countries, and has damaged its own society by imprisoning or exiling some of its best and brightest citizens,” Mr. Smith told the congressional Helsinki Commission in December. “The time has come to send a clear message.”

Mr. Harris said he was an admirer of Mr. Smith’s work, but “on this particular issue we part company.”

There were signs just this week that the government of President Ilham Aliev is trying to improve its image.

An Azeri court on Thursday ordered the release of a prominent reporter held for two years on charges of spying for Armenia, and Mr. Aliev announced the pardon of nearly 150 people, including several journalists and opposition activists — but Ms. Ismayilova was not among them.

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