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Last Updated: Friday, 8 August, 2003, 00:06 GMT 01:06 UK
Protests over Belarus Jewish graves
By Martha Doyle
BBC religious affairs reporter

Protesters outside the Belarus embassy in Brussels, Belgium
More than 300 orthodox Jews took part in the demonstrations

Orthodox Jews have begun a series of pickets at Belarusian embassies around the world, in protest at the desecration of a Jewish cemetery.

Hundreds of graves at the 300-year old site in Grodno are reported to have been shattered, during excavations to allow the expansion of the city's football stadium.

The Belarus authorities insist that digging has since been stopped, but Jewish leaders claim that the work is continuing.

"We have eyewitness reports that the desecration has been continuing this week," Rabbi Herschel Gluck of the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe said.

"The authorities are displaying an abominable disregard for human dignity. Eight hundred square metres of earth, full of human remains, has also been removed from the cemetery to a site outside Grodno.

"This is offensive to civilised people the world over," he added.

Work 'was halted'

British rabbis who visited the cemetery in June said that they were shocked to find human remains strewn everywhere and extensive earth-moving under way.

Human bones on the cemetery
Thousands of Jews killed in the Holocaust were buried at the cemetery
Reports have also emerged recently from Grodno of human bones turning up in building materials on other sites around the city.

The local authorities in Grodno are sticking to their claim that the work has been halted.

A letter from Grodno's District Executive Committee said that as of 28 July "digging work on the land around the stadium was stopped."

"Soil is not being removed from the land and the plan for the reconstruction of the stadium has been adjusted, so that this part of the land will not be used when further construction work is done," it added.

The authorities also claim that a preliminary agreement has been reached about the site with Grodno's small Jewish community.

Diplomatic pressure

But the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe is not reassured.

Rabbi Herschel Gluck in front of the main entrance to the Grodno football stadium
The committee says protests will continue until work ceases
"We have had endless official reports from the Belarus Government saying that construction work at the cemetery was being frozen; each time the claims have been disproved," Rabbi Gluck said.

The cemetery in Grodno was used for burials until the 1950s.

It was later taken over by the Soviet authorities, during which time the tombstones were destroyed and about one fifth of the site was sequestered for the building of Grodno's current football stadium.

Most of Grodno's 20,000-strong Jewish population died in the Holocaust.

There has been increasing diplomatic pressure on the Belarus Government.

Last month, a delegation of European Union ambassadors visited the cemetery and urged the authorities to call a halt to the work.

And 22 US congressmen have since sent a letter to the Belarusian president to get the excavations stopped, with New York State Senator Hillary Clinton also adding her name to the protests.

Finding a compromise

Over the past week, 300 orthodox Jews have taken part in demonstrations outside the Belarus embassies in London and Brussels.

The Jewish community says further protests are being planned for the US cities of New York and Washington and other European cities.

At the Belarus Embassy in London, the economic and commercial councillor, Evgeny Bogomazov, said of the protests: "It is not a pleasant situation."

"It does not give our country a good image. The local authorities are doing their best to compromise and find a suitable solution for all sides."

The CPJCE says the protests will continue until all work in the cemetery ceases and they are also demanding an end to the playing of football and other sports on a site that they view to be hallowed ground.

And they have asked for the unearthed human remains to be re-buried in the cemetery.

Belarus digs up Jewish graves
19 Jun 03  |  Europe

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