Photo Credit: Niyaz Bakılı via Flickr
Panoramic view of Baku, capital of Azerbaijan

The majority-Muslim republic of Azerbaijan on Wednesday issued a press release quoting the praise by a group of children from the Atlanta Jewish Academy to the Muslim majority country.

For the record, Azerbaijan is one of the few majority Muslim countries (Turkey, Egypt, Jordan and the former Soviet republics) to develop bilateral strategic and economic relations with Israel. In fact, Azerbaijan and Israel have engaged in intense cooperation since 1992. This relationship is relatively discreet: according to a 2009 US diplomatic memo, made public through Wikileaks, Azeri president Ilham Aliyev once compared his country’s relationship with Israel to an iceberg: “Nine-tenths of it is below the surface.”

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With that in mind, as part of this friendly, majority-Muslim country’s efforts to distinguish itself from those other majority-Muslim folks who are banned from landing at JFK, here’s the complete report on the recent lovefest, courtesy of the Atlanta Jewish Academy:

Azerbaijan was hailed as a ‘beacon of religious tolerance’ following a visit by a group of children from the Atlanta Jewish Academy to the Muslim majority country, which is wedged between Russia and Iran.

17-year-old Devorah Chasen said she felt welcomed and safe in Azerbaijan, stressing the country’s open culture and warm society. “Much of the religious division in the world today comes from stereotyping, but in Azerbaijan you experience the hospitality and friendliness and realise that the reality is very different,” Chasen said. “It’s been eye-opening.”

Five children, aged 10 to 17, from the Atlanta Jewish Academy travelled to Azerbaijan, accompanied by Rabbi Reuven Travis and Jewish community leader George Birnbaum.

“Given the increasing religious tensions around the world, it is important for Jewish kids from America to experience a modern, pluralistic and tolerant Muslim country like Azerbaijan,” Birnbaum said. “There is an actual friendship between the Jewish and Muslim communities, between the government and the Jewish community.”

“This country breaks stereotypes,” Rabbi Travis said, adding that the group felt completely at ease in Azerbaijan. “In France, I wore a baseball cap. I thought it was more dangerous to walk the streets of Paris with my kippah on than the streets of Baku.”

The trip was facilitated on the ground by The European Azerbaijan Society, or TEAS, which arranged logistics as well as the sightseeing itinerary, which led the Jewish group from the Old City in the capital of Baku to the ancient rock paintings in Gobustan and the home of the Mountain Jews in Guba.

“I believe the kids learned a lot about Azerbaijani history and culture,” said TEAS Chairman Tale Heydarov. “Azerbaijan has become a symbol of religious tolerance in the region. Muslims, Jews and Christians live side by side in peace and harmony.”

“It’s important to spread the word of religious tolerance,” said 17-year-old Esther Benchetrit. “I will tell my friends and family to go and visit, because it’s beautiful and people are so sweet.”

This was the second trip by the Atlanta Jewish Academy to Azerbaijan and a similar program is being developed to bring Azerbaijani students to the U.S.

“We hope this project will yield long-term results, as the children grow into adults and create opportunities for business, politics, education and more between the two countries,” Birnbaum concluded.

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