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Religious officials invited to monitor excavation sites

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JERUSALEM, May 6 (JTA) — Israel’s Antiquities Authority has agreed to allow officials from the Religious Affairs Ministry to observe excavations. The move announced this week is aimed at easing friction with the fervently Orthodox community. Fourteen ministry officials will be granted access to excavations that the Antiquities Authority routinely carries out preceding construction projects. Antiquities officials hope the new arrangement will halt the sometimes violent attempts by fervently Orthodox demonstrators to prevent excavations at sites they claim contain ancient Jewish graves. In one such incident on Tuesday, two protesters assaulted archaeologists at a site in northern Israel, even though the excavations had uncovered remains of a Byzantine-era storehouse and no bones. Antiquities officials said that while the sides would hold consultations if burial caves or bones are found, the ministry officials would have observer status only, and no say in whether to continue the dig. The arrangement, however, drew criticism from some who viewed it as capitulation to religious pressure and a threat to continued archaeological research in Israel. “This agreement will bring an end to archaeological research in Israel,” said Zamira Segev, director of Hemdat, the association for freedom of science, religion and culture in Israel. “It could also have a detrimental effect on continued development of the country, which requires these excavations.” Segev added that the consultations with the ministry observers on what to do with the bones was superfluous because the Antiquities Authority officials automatically turn over bones that are found to the relevant authorities for examination, and, if required, for a proper burial.

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