Pope urged to speak out against construction atop a Vilnius Jewish cemetery

(JTA) – Pope Francis is being urged to protest a Lithuanian government plan to build a conference centre atop a former cemetery.

Dovid Katz, a professor of Yiddish who runs the Defending History group and website, made the appeal in a statement ahead of the pope’s planned visit Sunday to the Vilnius Ghetto, the part of the Lithuanian capital where the Nazis and their local collaborators crammed thousands of Jewish during the Holocaust before murdering them.

The planned $25 million US conference centre is being built above the former Snipiskes Cemetery, which the Soviets destroyed decades ago and where many Jewish sages are buried.

It “would be very easy for him to bring up with Lithuanian government and ecclesiastical officials on his trip,” Katz wrote.

Katz’s appeal follows months of intensive lobbying by rabbis and activists who oppose the planned construction for religious reasons, citing rules set forth in Halacha, Orthodox Jewish law, that forbid disturbing Jewish bodies.

An online petition launched last year calling for a halt to the project has received more than 44,000 signatures.

“We feel honoured by the pope’s visit – no matter that we have different religions – and appreciate that he will honor the victims exactly 75 years after the ghetto was liquidated,” Faina Kukliansky, who heads the national umbrella group that is charged with representing the community, told AFP.

Lithuanian Jews are split on the project.  Kukliansky, who approved the project, has long faced accusations of corruption, which she has denied. In December, a Lithuanian court voided the communal elections in which Kukliansky’s term was extended, following a contested mid-campaign rules switch. A new vote has not been held.

Rabbi Avraham Ginsberg, executive director of the London-based Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe, said the construction would not disturb the Jewish graves.

In 2009, the committee was shown to be seeking $100,000 for “rabbinical supervision of digging” to be obtained by the Lithuanian government from developers. The sum was noted in a cable sent by a U.S. State Department official and leaked by WikiLeaks. Ginsberg has said the sum was never paid and was a maximum estimate of expenses that his organization might incur while supervising the site.

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