Azeri group calls visit "insult to Islamic world"; Israel attributes remark to Iranian meddling.
By GREER FAY CASHMAN
President Shimon Peres on Sunday embarked on what his office terms "historic visits" to the Muslim states of Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan.
The visit to Azerbaijan is the first official visit by a high-ranking Israeli dignitary.
Although Beit Hanassi put an embargo on publicizing the visits prior to his departure, reports that the visits were to take place began appearing in the media of both Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan as well as media outlets in other countries more than a month ago.
Not everyone in Azerbaijan is happy about Peres's arrival. According to various Internet reports, some of the elders of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan have protested the visit.
"We are against the visit of the leader of the criminal Zionist regime and we express our protest against the invitation, sent to him. We demand categorically that the Azeri leadership cancel this visit," says a statement, released by the Nardaran believers.
"The Israeli president's visit to Baku will damage Azerbaijan's international image as a Muslim state and will be an insult to the Islamic world," the statement continues. "Building ties with the Zionist regime, hostile to the Muslims, could damage Azerbaijan as part of the Islamic world. We urge the government to prevent the visit as a sign of respect for the Islamic religion."
Foreign Ministry officials in Baku attribute the statement to meddling by Iran.
According to the Pakistan Daily, Peres will be in Azerbaijan "to consolidate energy and military ties with Baku which began in 1992."
The visits by Peres are intended to upgrade Israel's relations with both countries, each of which prides itself on having treated its Jews well and as having served as a haven for other Jews during World War II.
Peres is scheduled to travel with a large entourage, including Industry, Trade, and Labor Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer; National Infrastructures Minister Uzi Landau; Science, Culture, and Sport Minister Daniel Herschkowitz and Defense Ministry Director-General Pinchas Buhris, along with several CEOs of Israel's defense industries and 60 heads of major companies.
In Kazakhstan, Peres is slated to be the guest of honor at the Third Congress of leaders of World and Traditional Religions, where he is to deliver the keynote address.
He is also scheduled to hold meetings with President Nursultan Nazarbayev, whom he has met on previous occasions and whose singing voice, leadership and hearty personality he has publicly praised at various Kazakhstan functions in Israel. He is also expected to meet with other prominent Kazakhstan officials.
The businesspeople accompanying Peres plan to participate in a bilateral business forum in Astana. As part of the forum, cooperation agreements on peaceful space exploration and in areas of foreign policy, as well as on a Kazakhstan-Israel business forum, are expected to be signed.
Azerbaijan's priority fields for cooperation with Israel are agriculture, management of water resources, medical training and hi-tech. As in Kazakhstan, agreements are expected to be signed between the three ministers and their Azeri counterparts.
The visits to the two Muslim countries are a collaborative effort between Beit Hanassi, the Foreign Ministry, the Israel Export Institute, and the Israel Manufacturers Association.
In addition to the meetings with Azeri and Kazakh officials, Peres is expected to meet with members of the Jewish communities in both countries. In Kazakhstan - where Jews have lived for centuries - he is scheduled to attend the inauguration of a new synagogue.
He will also use the visits as a platform to make Israel's policies and aspirations for peace better known to that part of the world.
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