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Last Updated: Thursday, 19 June, 2003, 21:42 GMT 22:42 UK
Belarus digs up Jewish graves
By Martha Doyle
BBC religious affairs correspondent

Jewish religious leaders from Britain claim thousands of Jewish graves have been desecrated in Belarus, where the site of an historic cemetery is being excavated to allow the expansion of a football stadium.

Rabbi Herschel Gluck at the excavation site
The building works were described as "a gross insult to the Jewish people"
Rabbis, who travelled to the Jewish cemetery in the western town of Grodno this week, say they were shocked to find excavations in full swing and outraged to see human remains from thousands of shattered graves strewn across the site.

"Any civilised human being would recoil in horror at such vandalism and disrespect to the physical remains of people," said Rabbi Herschel Gluck of the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe (CPJCE).

He described it as "an abuse to the dead and a gross insult to the Jewish people, which causes great distress to the relatives of those buried there and to Jewish people everywhere".

'Cemetery' stadium

Grodno's 300-year old cemetery was used for burials until the 1950s.

Rabbi Herschel Gluck in front of the main entrance to the Grodno football stadium
The Grodno stadium was built on the old cemetery

It is understood to have been taken over by the Soviet authorities in 1958.

The tombstones were destroyed, and Grodno's current football stadium was built on about a fifth of the cemetery.

The current work aims to expand the football stadium and provide extra sports facilities.

The CPJCE has said it is depraved that the desecration is being carried out to facilitate the enlargement of a football stadium to comply with European standards.

The committee is appealing to football's world and European governing bodies, Fifa and Uefa, to intervene to halt the destruction.

Among those buried in the cemetery are thousands of Jews killed in the Holocaust and important Jewish sages, including Reb Nochumka Horodna, the Yesod Veshoresh Hoavoda and the Gaon Rav Shimon Khkop.

'Another blow to Jews'

The few relatives of the dead, who still live in Grodno, are said to be very distressed by the desecration.

Human bones on the cemetery
Thousands of Jews killed in the Holocaust were buried at the cemetery

One elderly relative, who did not want to be named, said the desecration was yet another blow to Jews in the region who had most of their families and friends wiped out in the Holocaust.

Delegates from the UK, who travelled to Grodno, say the regional authorities were unwilling to accept that the site was a cemetery or that consultation was needed prior to any digging work.

No one from the Belarus authorities has so far been available to comment.

Fifa has told the BBC that the issue is not within its jurisdiction.

The Jewish community is now relying on Uefa and high-level diplomacy to get the work stopped before more damage is done.

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