The chief rabbi of Russia secretly visited Iran earlier this year, Hebrew media reports over the weekend said.
According to the Israel National News site, which first reported Berel Lazar’s trip, the rabbi was sent to Iran on a diplomatic mission by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Lazar is considered to be close with the Russian leader and is sometimes referred to as “Putin’s rabbi.”
The reported visit was not confirmed by Lazar or Chabad, the Hasidic sect of which he is a member.
Other reports, which like that of Israel National News were unsourced, said Lazar traveled to Iran with a delegation from the Duma, the lower house of Russia’s parliament. The decision to include Lazar was said to have been made by Putin.
The Iranians opposed Lazar’s inclusion, the reports said, but ultimately backed down due to Russian insistence he be included.
While in Tehran, Iran’s capital, Lazar reportedly visited the city’s main synagogue and a Jewish school, and met with Jewish leaders.
The Ynet news site said that during the visit, which took place in April after the Jewish holiday of Passover, Lazar only dealt with issues related to Iran’s Jewish community.
Iran had between 80,000 and 100,000 Jews before the 1979 Islamic Revolution but most have since fled, mainly to the United States, Israel and Europe. There are now only about 8,500 left, mostly in Tehran but also in Isfahan and Shiraz, major cities south of the capital.
Other reports speculated that Lazar’s trip was part of Israeli and Russian efforts to remove Iranian forces from Syria, though it was unclear why Russia’s chief rabbi would be involved in such an effort.
Like Russia, Iran is a key backer of Syrian President Bashar Assad in that country’s civil war. Israel has repeatedly vowed to act militarily to prevent Iran’s entrenchment in Syria, which it fears could be used as a launchpad for attacks on the Jewish state.
Lazar’s reported visit is notable in light of Iran’s bellicose rhetoric toward Israel, as well as the Holocaust denial voiced by prominent Iranian leaders, most prominently former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Additionally, many Iranian Jews complain they are not treated equally under the law, Homayoun Sameyah Najaf Abadi, the head of Tehran’s Jewish community and a doctor at Tehran’s Jewish Hospital, said in 2015.
AFP contributed to this report.