Prague violates Jews’ rights, group claims

PRAGUE, Aug. 6 (JTA) — A dispute over a Prague cemetery is a human rights issue, according to a London-based Orthodox group.

The Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe has lodged a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights concerning the construction of an office building over one of Europe’s oldest Jewish cemeteries in Prague.

The committee has been trying for several months to halt construction work at the site on Vladislavova Street.

According to the committee’s Czech lawyer, Simona Maskova, the group filed the petition against the Czech government with the Strasbourg, France-based court on the grounds that the government had violated Jews’ human rights, especially “the right to perform religious actions freely.”

“The committee believes that this construction breaches Jewish law because the cemetery is holy land for Jews and they are not being allowed to perform religious actions and other rituals,” Maskova said. “The cemetery must not be disturbed in any way.”

Maskova also said she applied to a Prague court for an injunction to halt construction work at the site, also on human rights grounds.

“These are preliminary proceedings with the court and it will take weeks or months for a decision to be reached,” she said of the move for an injunction.

But time is against the committee — the Czech insurance company Ceska pojistovna, which owns the site, said it will be ready to move ahead with construction as early as next month. As part of the work, the firm plans to encase the remains from the cemetery in concrete as soon as up to 160 skeletons previously removed from the site for anthropological research are returned.

The issue first hit the international stage last year, when misinformation relayed over the Internet said the burial site was Prague’s famous Old Cemetery, actually located a half-mile away in Prague’s Old Jewish Quarter.

The committee has consistently refused to accept a compromise worked out between the Czech government and the Prague Jewish community to allow construction work to continue around and below the section of cemetery lying underneath the construction project.

The decision flew in the face of a rabbinical ruling by Yisrael Meir Lau, the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, that no construction should take place around the site.

The legal step marks a change in tactics by the London-based group, which has organized a series of protests at the site, as well as at Czech embassies in London and Brussels.

Rabbi Herschel Gluck, a member of the group, said at a news conference Thursday that the case of the cemetery was “one of the most painful issues in Jewish European history since the Second World War.”

The committee’s executive director, A.C. Ginsberg, said the group would continue to voice its opposition to the construction around the world.

“We cannot and will never agree with something that is against the Jewish law,” he said, “and we want to make it absolutely crystal clear that any desecration of the cemetery that has been done or will be done in the future is strongly opposed by all Orthodox Jews around the world.”

The Czech government is unlikely to heed the committee’s last-ditch appeals.

The Czech foreign minister stated recently that the cemetery issue was an “internal matter,” while Czech Culture Minister Pavel Dostal ruled out a change of heart on the agreement reached in March.

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