Have you heard of Azerbaijan I asked the interfaith activist? No, was the response back and is that not a place in the East? Another activist blurted out reflexively saying, "isn't it some Russian state?"
Many over the age of 40 will remember Azerbaijan through the news reports in the late 1980's and early 1990's when Azerbaijan was locked into what was effectively a military conflict with Armenia over the Caucasus enclave of Nagorno Karabakh. Beyond that, Azerbaijan never really made news reports apart from recently when it has hit the headlines with the European Games taking place in 2015 in the country. The capital of Azerbaijan, Baku, has gone through a modern day transformation, partly for the games. Oil and gas resources have also financed a super-wealthy elite and modern day Baku is a far cry from what it was just 10 years ago.
Azerbaijan's Jewish Heritage
Yet for me, one of the most interesting and heart-warming facts about Azerbaijan is the co-existence of faiths that has taken place in the country. For example, who would know that the country is home to around 10,000 Jews who live in mountainous areas and the faith community makes up the majority of the town of Guba, located in north-eastern Azerbaijan.
Historians have traced back the existence of the Jewish community to this region to about 500 BC. Talk to Azerbaijanis and they are immensely proud of the small Jewish communities in their country and many also refer to Albert Agarunov, Azerbaijan's national hero who was of Jewish heritage. Other national heroes of Jewish heritage include the Nobel Prize winner Lev Landau who won the prize for theoretical Physics and the former world champion chess player, Garry Kasparov.
Azerbaijan is also home to Ashkenazi Jews who settled in industrial centres like Baku in the late 19th century. Many settled in Azerbaijan after the pogroms that took place in Russia and many saw this Muslim majority area as a place of refuge for them. In fact, for two years from 1918-1920, the first Health Minister for the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic was a member of the Ashkenazi community.
Twinning of Baku in Azerbaijan with Haifa in Israel
More recently, Baku, the capital city of Azerbaijani is twinned with Haifa in Israel and this was partly led by some migration of Azerbaijan's Jewish community in the 1970's and 1990's to Tel Aviv and Haifa. That connection has not died and many of the links, friendships and connections are still alive through the power of the internet and Skype. Additionally, direct flights between Tel Aviv and Baku have ensured that tourism between the two countries has grown and historical, cultural and religious links have been maintained.
What is also interesting to note is that Israeli healthcare providers and charities have also started to build links with Caucasus states such as Azerbaijan. In particular, Israeli hospitals have seen and understood the value of these links and have been promoting healthcare tourism to countries like Azerbaijan as a way of generating much needed income. Relations between the two countries have also grown from strength to strength and the Middle East conflict has little or no impact on relations between the two.
More recently, the Government in Baku has also started to fund the construction of places of worship and has restored others, some of them Christian and Jewish churches and synagogues. Today, Baku hosts two synagogues and one of them is considered to be amongst the biggest in Europe and there is representation of Jewish communities at the Parliamentary level.
So next time someone talks about some eastern enclave when you mention Azerbaijan, maybe you can update them on some of the real developments on interfaith and dialogue work taking place inside and beyond this state which is starting to punch well above its weight. If anything, Azerbaijan truly deserves our attention.