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Page last updated at 09:39 GMT, Friday, 17 February 2006

Row over Israeli tolerance museum

By Martin Patience
BBC News website, Jerusalem

Muslim graves, with building site security fence in background
The new complex is being built over a Muslim cemetery

For the last 40 years Mohammed Hamdi Bader has left his tailor's shop in the Old City once a month and taken a short walk to the heart of west Jerusalem where he prayed close to his grandfather's grave.

But the 49-year-old Palestinian father-of-five can no longer reach the grave and he's furious about it.

The Maamam Allah cemetery, which is at least 1,000 years old, has become a building site.

The Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Centre is constructing a Museum of Tolerance on the cemetery. The centre says the museum will seek to promote "unity and respect among Jews and between people of all faiths".

Wherever you dig in Jerusalem you are going to find graves and archaeological sites
Charles Levine
Museum spokesman

The project has raised the ire of the Muslim community in the city. There have been accusations that exhumed remains have been damaged.

Despite a temporary injunction on work at the site issued by the Islamic Court - a division of the Israeli justice system - Israeli archaeologists and developers have continued excavating remains at the cemetery, says Durgham Saif, a Palestinian lawyer.

'Absurd'

On Wednesday Mr Saif took the case to the Israeli Supreme Court in the hope of strengthening the Islamic Court's injunction. The supreme court's verdict is still pending.

Standing in his tailor's shop beside an old hoarding advertising "London styles", with drawings of men in suits, raincoats and bowler hats from the 1930s, Mr Bader says he thinks a museum of tolerance is a good idea.

View over Jerusalem's Independence Park, including controversial site
White tents have been erected to protect the excavation

"But you can't build this museum on any graveyard, regardless of religion," he adds.

The discovery of human remains on building sites in this part of the world is highly sensitive, for both Jews and Muslims.

The Mufti of Jerusalem, Ekrema Sabri, says that Muslim religious authorities were not consulted about digging at the site.

Sitting in his office in the al-Aqsa Mosque, the mufti also says that the museum's claim to promote tolerance is absurd.

"How can a museum carrying the name of tolerance be built on a graveyard?"

Smashed skull

Durgham Saif, the lawyer who brought the Islamic petition to the Israeli Supreme Court, says that bones have already been removed to boxes and that one skull has been smashed.

Workers and bags of sand at the construction site
Muslims say the remains of historic figures lie in the cemetery
But Charles Levine, spokesman for the new museum, accused Palestinian and Muslim groups of exploiting the issue for political gain.

"Why didn't they protest when the car park was built?" asks Mr Levine, referring to the part of the cemetery converted into a car park 20 years ago and now part of the site for the museum.

"Wherever you dig in Jerusalem you are going to find graves and archaeological sites. We are fully committed to resolving this issue in a respectful manner."

Heavily guarded

Californian governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Ehud Olmert, now acting Israeli Prime Minister, attended a ceremony in 2004 to lay the Museum of Tolerance's foundation stone.

Plans for the $150m museum, designed by renowned architect Frank Gehry, include a theatre complex, a conference hall, an education centre and a library.

It is expected to be completed in 2009.

For now, the cemetery is patrolled by security guards and is surrounded by a four-metre-high metal fence and razor wire.

Through the cracks of the padlocked gates, you can see diggers and bulldozers. White tents, housing skeletal remains, are also visible.

Inside one of these white tents, Mr Bader says, lie the mortal remains of his grandfather.

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