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Rabbi leads US evangelicals in visit to Muslim Azerbaijan

March 07, 2019

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — A group of evangelical pastors from the U.S. visited the predominantly Muslim Shiite nation of Azerbaijan to promote interfaith dialogue and highlight cooperation with Israel, with pastors saying Thursday the visit has already challenged their views about the potential for coexistence in America’s polarized landscape.

New York-based Rabbi Marc Schneier, who led the evangelical delegation, told The Associated Press from the capital of Baku that this was the first ever Christian evangelical delegation to visit Azerbaijan.

Most of Azerbaijan’s population of 10 million are Shiite but it’s also home to Sunnis, Christians and around 30,000 Jews, said the rabbi. The country shares borders with both Iran and Russia. The group, which included 12 U.S. pastors, met President Ilham Aliyev, the foreign minister, Muslim sheikhs, local church leaders, and Israel’s ambassador.

Schneier said Aliyev announced during the delegation’s visit that the country’s first-ever Jewish cultural center would be built in Baku with Kosher dining options and a hotel to accommodate Jewish guests.

The delegation also visited a Jewish school where children sang Hebrew songs for Israel. “I literally had to pinch— I had to pinch myself,” Schneier said. “Here I am in a Muslim majority country being welcomed into a Jewish school with all these Jewish children singing Israeli songs. It’s just a phenomenon that one would be able to experience anything like that.”

Schneier heads the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding based in New York and founded The Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, New York. He is at the forefront of building ties between Jews and Muslims in the U.S. and the Middle East. Through greater interreligious dialogue, he’s pushed for closer relations between Muslim leaders and the state of Israel.

Last year, there were visits by U.S. evangelicals to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates— two countries seeking to strengthen ties with the Trump administration through his evangelical base of supporters. The outreach is happening as Gulf Arab states simultaneously take their once-private outreach to Israel more public and work to isolate Iran.

Unlike Arab Gulf states, Azerbaijan already has diplomatic relations with Israel, its national carrier flies direct to Tel Aviv and its president hosted Israel’s prime minister in 2016. Pastor Adam Mesa, who leads the Abundant Living Family Church in Rancho Cucamonga, California, said it was his first time in a Muslim majority country. He was encouraged to take part in the trip because of Azerbaijan’s supportive Israeli stance and interreligious efforts.

For many U.S. evangelicals, support for Israel is at the very core of their faith. Most believe that before Jesus can return, Jews have to go back to the Holy Land. They also believe the return of the Messiah will follow the rebuilding of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, also the site of Islam’s sacred Al-Aqsa Mosque compound.

“There’s been this polarization in our country that we’re supposed to be separatists from one another and we’re supposed to not interact with one another,” Mesa said. “It’s incredible that a Muslim majority country is the one that has to actually lead the charge on religious dialogue and community and solidarity.”

He said his talks in Azerbaijan with Catholics, Jews and Muslim sheikhs held no friction, resentment or prejudging. “I think we really need to bring that attitude back to America,” he said. “I really want to emphasize that to my church and other political leaders.”

Pastor Calvin Battle, who leads Destiny Christian Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, described the visit as “absolutely incredible.” It was also his first time visiting a Muslim country and his first time in a dialogue with sheikhs and learning “how similar” the Abrahamic faiths are.

“I have to admit it’s kind of impaired my ignorances concerning the area and the region and what I came in with, presuppositions concerning the people,” he said. More than just promoting inter-religious tolerance, Azerbaijan too sees political currency in its outreach with Christians and Jews.

“From a political point of view, listen there is no question you know that Azerbaijan is looking to strengthen its relationship with the U.S. administration, with the United States Congress. Israel is very much a conduit to that,” Schneier said.

Azerbaijan’s president has maintained close ties with the West, helping protect its energy and security interests and to counterbalance Russia’s influence in the strategic Caspian region. At the same time, Aliyev’s government has long faced criticism in the West for alleged human rights abuses and suppression of dissent.

Associated Press writer Vladimir Isachenkov contributed from Moscow.

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Azerbaijan’s leader names his wife as 1st vice president

February 21, 2017

BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) — Azerbaijan’s president on Tuesday appointed his wife as the first vice president of the ex-Soviet nation — the person next in line in the nation’s power hierarchy. Ilham Aliyev, 55 named his wife Mehriban, 52, to the position created after a constitutional referendum in September. Mehriban, who married her husband when she was 19, graduated from a medical university. She has served previously as a lawmaker and headed a charity.

The constitutional amendments approved at the referendum introduced the positions of two vice presidents, one of them the first vice president. The first vice president takes over the presidency if the president is unable to perform his or her duties. It doesn’t describe the first vice president’s duties, but it’s expected that they will include overseeing the Cabinet.

Aliyev’s critics say the September referendum that also extended the presidential term from five to seven years effectively cemented a dynastic rule. In 2003, Aliyev succeeded his father, who had ruled Azerbaijan first as the Communist Party boss and then as a post-Soviet president for the greater part of three decades.

Aliyev and his wife have two daughters and a son. Aliyev has firmly allied the energy-rich Shiite Muslim nation with the West, helping secure his country’s energy and security interests and offset Russia’s influence in the strategic Caspian Sea region. At the same time, his government has long faced criticism in the West for alleged human rights abuses and suppression of dissent.

Azerbaijan’s leader has cast himself as a guarantor of stability, an image that has a wide appeal in the country where painful memories are still fresh of the turmoil that accompanied the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union.

Azerbaijan holds referendum on presidential term extension

September 26, 2016

BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) — Amid international criticism, Azerbaijanis held a referendum Monday on proposed constitutional changes that would extend the presidential term and powers in the ex-Soviet republic.

The proposals, which include raising the presidential term from five years to seven and granting the president the right to dissolve parliament, have been criticized by a European constitutional law watchdog and international human rights groups. Azerbaijani authorities have dismissed the criticism as unfounded and politically driven.

Azerbaijan’s Central Election Commission chief Mazahir Panahov said early Tuesday that with about 72 percent of the ballots counted, over 90 percent of the voters supported the extension of the presidential term.

Turnout was high at nearly 70 percent, according to election officials. Some opponents say the changes would cement what they see as effectively a dynasty, as President Ilham Aliyev is the son of the previous leader. They see the proposed measures as a mechanism for extending his rule in the oil-rich Caspian Sea nation that has come under frequent criticism from abroad for alleged human rights abuses and suppression of dissent.

Last week, the Venice Commission, a watchdog body of constitutional law experts based in France, released a preliminary report saying that extending the presidential mandate “cannot be justified” and that other proposed legal changes would upset the balance of power.

The commission expressed concern about a measure limiting public gatherings and said a measure giving the president the power to dissolve parliament would weaken political dissent. The Venice Commission experts are part of the Council of Europe, a rights authority whose 47 members, including Azerbaijan, have signed the European Convention on Human Rights.

In a statement before the vote, Amnesty International said the constitutional amendments would give more authority to the already powerful president and grant the government even more power to interfere with freedom of assembly, in violation of international standards. It added that preparations for the vote were marked by arrests and intimidation of critics of the proposed constitutional amendments.

The Azerbaijani government has rejected the criticism and insisted that the proposed changes are aimed at streamlining the government and promoting economic reforms. “One of the main reasons for the referendum is the need to conduct fast economic reforms … to improve the efficiency of the government and cut the red tape,” Aliyev aide Ali Hasanov told reporters Monday.

Leyla Abbasova, a 53-year old school teacher who cast her ballot in the capital, Baku, said she voted for the proposed amendments and voiced hope that “they will bring positive changes.” Camilya Abdullayeva, 23, also said she voted ‘yes,’ adding that by removing minimum age limits for officials and legislators the proposed changes would “encourage young people to engage in politics.”

Officials say the referendum results will be announced by Oct. 21.

Russia defends selling arms to both Azerbaijan and Armenia

April 09, 2016

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia on Saturday defended its policy of selling arms to both Armenia and Azerbaijan, whose military forces have faced off in a sharp escalation of fighting around separatist Nagorno-Karabakh.

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said if Russia stopped selling arms, both countries would simply seek new suppliers. “They would buy weapons in other countries, and the degree of their deadliness wouldn’t change,” he told Russian state television following visits to the capitals of Armenia and Azerbaijan. “But at the same time, this could to a certain degree destroy the balance” of forces that exists in the South Caucasus region.

Both Azerbaijani and Armenian forces this month have used artillery, tanks and other weapons on a scale not seen since a separatist war ended in 1994. The war left Karabakh, officially part of Azerbaijan, under the control of local ethnic Armenian forces and the Armenian military.

The recent fighting has killed about 75 soldiers from both sides along with several civilians. A Russia-brokered truce went into effect Tuesday, but both sides accused the other of violating it daily.

The Russian arms sales to energy-rich Azerbaijan have angered many in Armenia, which has hosted a Russian military base and kept close security and economic ties to Russia. But the parallel arms sales reflect Russia’s desire to expand its influence in the strategic region, a key conduit for energy resources from the Caspian Sea to the West.

Russia has joined the United States and France in acting as mediators in Nagorno-Karabakh peace talks under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which have dragged on since 1994 with no visible results.

With the OSCE Minsk Group meeting Saturday in Yerevan, the Armenian capital, hundreds of demonstrators rallied on a central square to protest the lack of progress by the negotiators. They demanded that the Karabakh separatists be a party to the peace talks and for Russia to stop selling arms to Azerbaijan, said Marine Manucharyan, one of the organizers. Their demands were delivered to the Russian, U.S. and French embassies.

The Russian representative to the Minsk Group, Igor Popov, said the mediators met with the political and military leadership of both sides, which he said “demonstrated a readiness to preserve the truce” and understand the need to return to a political discussion.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said Saturday his country was committed to the peace process but had no intention of giving up territory and “would never allow the formation of a second Armenian state on Azerbaijani lands.”

Avet Demourian in Yerevan, Armenia, and Aida Sultanova in Baku, Azerbaijan, contributed.

Azerbaijan frees rights activist after 2 years in prison

March 28, 2016

BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) — A court in Azerbaijan has ordered the release of a human rights activist who spent the last two years in jail. Intigam Aliyev was convicted last year of economic crimes that critics have dismissed as retaliation for his work.

His lawyer, Fariz Namazly, said the Supreme Court of this former Soviet republic issued a ruling Monday converting Aliyev’s seven-year prison sentence into a five-year conditional one, meaning his immediate release.

The ruling comes amid a flurry of other court decisions that triggered the release of 16 activists and journalists this month who have spent years in prison. The Caspian Sea nation has come under criticism for a crackdown on human rights, with journalists and activists hit with charges they say are retaliation for their work exposing official abuses.

Journalist in Azerbaijan sentenced to 7½ years in prison

September 01, 2015

BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) — A court in Azerbaijan convicted an investigative journalist on Tuesday of several financial crimes and sentenced her to 7½ years in prison, in a case widely criticized by human rights organizations.

Khadija Ismayilova and her supporters say the charges were retribution for her reports on alleged corruption involving President Ilham Aliyev and his family in the oil-rich former Soviet republic. Several other journalists and rights activists also have been imprisoned in Azerbaijan in what has been widely seen as an effort by the authoritarian government to stifle dissent.

The Baku court convicted Ismayilova of embezzlement, illegal business activity, tax evasion and abuse of power, but found her not guilty of inciting a colleague to commit suicide. The case against her was initiated when the colleague filed his complaint, but he later withdrew the accusation.

The prison sentence was slightly less than the nine years requested by prosecutors for 39-year-old Ismayilova, a contributor to U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. “Khadija Ismayilova’s trial has been a farce, yet the consequences for her, and for all Azerbaijani journalists, are gravely serious,” Nina Ognianova of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said in a statement. She called on Azerbaijan to overturn the conviction on appeal and “for Baku’s international partners to stop turning a blind eye to the country’s human rights abuses.”

Azerbaijan is holding at least seven other journalists in jail, CPJ said. Other rights groups also condemned the verdict. “The government has stepped up its brutal crackdown on political activists, journalists, human rights defenders — indeed anyone who dares to publicly raise a critical voice,” Denis Krivosheev of Amnesty International said in a statement.

In August, a prominent rights defender and her husband were convicted of fraud and sentenced to prison terms of 8 ½ years and seven years, respectively.

Azeris get Israel UAVs built under license

Baku, Azerbaijan (UPI)

Oct 7, 2011

Azerbaijan is expected to acquire 60 small Israeli-designed unmanned aerial vehicles built under license in the oil-rich former Soviet republic that’s moving closer to the Jewish state as the Baku government modernizes its military.

The burgeoning military and intelligence alliance between the countries is causing growing concern in Iran, Azerbaijan’s southern neighbor, and in nearby longtime rival Armenia.

The Israeli Aerostar and Orbiter 2M UAVs are being manufactured by Baku’s Azad Systems Co., a joint venture between Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry and Aeronautics Defense Systems of Israel.

That’s the country’s third largest UAV manufacturer after Israel Aerospace Industries and Elbit Systems.

Around 70 percent of the components are produced in Israel, the rest in Azerbaijan.

Sixty of the drones are to be delivered to Azerbaijan’s armed forces by the end of the year, primarily for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions.

Azerbaijan’s military already operates Elbit Systems’ Hermes 450 and IAI’s Searcher reconnaissance drones, as well as some of Aeronautics Defense Systems’ Aerostar and Orbiter craft.

Azerbaijan Minister of Defense Industry Yavar Jamalov told the Azerbaijan Press Agency that Baku is considering the production of missile-armed UAVs within the next two years, a development guaranteed to deepen Iranian and Armenian concerns.

The UAV deal with Azerbaijan allows Israeli manufacturers to pick up some of the slack that appeared when Israel’s strategic military alliance with Turkey collapsed in 2010.

APA reported that Aeronautics Defense Systems beat out several Turkish defense firms, including TAI, Baykar Makina and Global Teknik, for the UAV venture set up in March.

Azerbaijan, which lies in the energy-rich Caspian Basin, has oil reserves of more than 1.2 billion barrels as well as 4.4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. It is one of Israel’s largest suppliers of crude oil.

Last Sunday, Israel’s air force marked the 40th anniversary of the formation of its first UAV unit, Squadron 200 at the Palmachim Air Base on the Mediterranean coast south of Tel Aviv from where IAI satellites are launched.

The squadron was equipped with a drone named the Scout, built by what was then Israel Aircraft Industries, and became operational in October 1981. The Scout made its combat debut in the June 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon.

That campaign evolved into a counter-terrorism conflict that has dragged on to this day, even after Israeli withdrew from its last foothold in south Lebanon in May 2000.

In the years since the Scout took to the skies, but particularly after 9/11, Israel has become one of the world’s leading UAV manufacturers, second only to the United States.

The Israeli Defense Ministry’s defense export and defense cooperation arm, known as SIBAT, says Israel’s export of counter-terrorism systems, including UAVs, has risen from $2 billion a year 10 years ago to nearly $7 billion.

Defense experts expect the export of counter-terrorism systems to increase.

“The threats aren’t getting any smaller,” SIBAT Deputy Director Itamar Graff told Bamahane, the armed forces’ magazine.

“We constantly cope with terrorist threats ?The world’s moving in the direction of dealing with terrorist threats.

“On issues such as home front protection, shore security and missile defense, people from around the world come to learn from us,” Graff said.

“We’re dealing with a variety of possible threats and we’ll continue to be a dominant and significant factor in the world.”

The Scout was retired in 2004. It was replaced by, among others, IAI’s Searcher, which carried advanced navigation, communication and sensor systems and is in service with 10 countries.

IAI has since developed the long-endurance, 1-ton Heron that can operate at altitudes of 30,000 feet and can loiter over targets for 24 hours.

The Heron Turbo Prop, known as the Eitan, introduced into military service with Squadron 210 in February 2010, is the air force’s largest and most sophisticated unmanned aerial system.

Its takeoff weight is 5 tons and can carry payloads of 2,200 pounds. It has a wingspan of 84 feet, about the same as a Boeing 737. It can stay airborne for 24 hours and has a range of around 650 miles.

Source: Space War.

Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Azeris_get_Israel_UAVs_built_under_license_999.html.

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