(JTA) – Lithuania’s interior ministry denied claims by the country’s chief rabbi that he was threatened with deportation over his objection to construction atop a Jewish cemetery.
Rabbi Chaim Burshtein, an Israeli citizen who divides his time between Israel and Lithuania, told JTA Thursday that he was detained at Vilnius airport’s passport control while leaving the country a day earlier. He said a border police officer informed him he would not be allowed to return because he had overstayed his visa.
“They changed their minds when I threatened to turn this into an international scandal,” Burshtein said. He added the border police officer told him he had been flagged in her computer system, and advised him to “sort out the problem with the person who ordered the flag,” Burshtein said.
Burshtein was detained at the border control for 15 minutes before he was allowed to board his flight with assurances he would be allowed back into the country, he said.
But a spokesperson for the Lithuanian interior ministry on Friday denied that Burshtein had been flagged, saying that the delay was due to a multitude of entry stamps that complicated the calculation of visa days. Ultimately, officials concluded that the rabbi had not overstayed, the spokesperson said.
“There were no talks about deportation,” the spokesperson wrote, adding that deportation is in any case “not the competence of border guards,” but of the Migration Department.
“If Mr Ch. Burshtein wishes to come to Lithuania and has valid travel documents,” the spokesperson said, “no obstacles for entry/exit from Lithuania should arise.”
In recent months, Burshtein publicly condemned the government’s plan to erect a conference center atop a dilapidated Communist-era Sports Palace, which the Soviets built on what used to be a large and ancient Jewish cemetery. Burshtein has also criticized as authoritarian the president of the Jewish community, Faina Kukliansky.
She denied the allegations, and said the community was considering firing Burshtein.
Burshtein accused Kukliansky, a former state prosecutor, of orchestrating the alleged attempted deportation, saying she sided with authorities on the dispute around the cemetery.
Reached by JTA, Kukliansky rejected the claims outright and added that she did not disagree with Burshtein on the cemetery issue.
“I have no disagreements with Chaim at all, on the Sport Palace included,” she said.