Belarus defends construction project atop Jewish cemetery

Authorities in Belarus defended a local court’s decision to authorize a controversial construction project atop what used to be a Jewish cemetery.

The Belarusian foreign ministry on Sunday defended the court decision amid international media criticism, saying the local Jewish community in Gomel in the country’s southeast approved the plan because it is impossible to pinpoint exactly where the bodies are buried.

The foreign ministry said the court authorization was granted after the Rabbi David Kantarovich of the Beit Ya’akov Orthodox congregation gave his consent for the project.

A judge from the Tsentralny District Court ruled on August 21 against intervening in plans for the construction of two luxury apartment buildings on the grounds of a former cemetery on Sozhskaya Street in the city. The court was responding to a motion for an injunction submitted by Yakov Goodman.

Goodman, a Jewish-American activist for the preservation of Jewish heritage sites in his native Belarus, is an outspoken critic of the treatment of Jewish cemeteries in the country.

The Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, the World Jewish Congress and the Union of Public Associations and Jewish Communities criticized the ruling, urging authorities to hold off on any construction.

But Kantarovich’s community determined that there is no reason to fear that the planned construction would disturb human remains – a prospect that is considered a desecration by followers of halacha, or Jewish law, the Belarusian foreign ministry said in a statement sent to JTA Sunday.

Sampling for human remains was conducted in the rabbi’s presence in March and demonstrated “absence of human remains in the land,” the statement by the ministry said. The ministry added that it takes the preservation of Jewish heritage and its sites very seriously.

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