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Russian Orthodox Church condemns cemetery attack

MOSCOW, June 1 (JTA) — The Russian Orthodox Church has condemned a recent act of vandalism at a Jewish cemetery in Smolensk, a city of 280,000 in western Russia. The statement by the church came after the Russian Jewish Congress urged the Russian Patriarch to condemn the cemetery desecration and other anti-Semitic and ultranationalistic incidents. In its statement, the church did not describe the incident as an anti-Semitic act, but it condemned “any manifestations of extremism and vandalism.” At the end of April, on Russian Orthodox Easter, vandals destroyed 52 headstones at the Jewish cemetery. The desecrated headstones were turned over and broken. Dozens of metal name-plates were ripped off the stones, some of which were daubed with swastikas. Viktor Vaksman, the head of the Smolensk Jewish community, said at the time that anti-Semitic incidents have become “a sort of Easter tradition” in Smolensk. Last year, the Jewish community’s office was burglarized on Easter Day, and its door was daubed with a swastika and anti-Semitic slogans. Two years ago, a few dozen headstones were damaged at the same Jewish cemetery. Although Smolensk officials have launched an investigation of the latest desecration, local Jews have been outraged by some of the officials’ comments about the incident. According to Dmitri Levant, a leader of Smolensk’s 5,000-strong Jewish community, local security officials said that Jewish activists may have committed the crime in order to spur Jews to emigrate. Jewish leaders previously charged that the local authorities did not want to attract public attention to the incident. To back up the charge, community leaders pointed to a request by the police that a Smolensk television station not show the damaged tombstones on its newscast.