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Lithuanian Jewish community teams up with other minority groups

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VILNIUS, Lithuania (JTA) — Faina Kukliansky entered the theater alone, waved at a few friends and sat down to watch "I Shot My Love," the Israeli documentary film that kicked off Lithuania’s first gay film festival.

Some other Lithuanian Jews, she said, have told her to avoid such events for fear of being too closely associated with the gay community.

But Kukliansky, the vice president of Lithuania’s Jewish community, was attending for that very reason: to cement a new partnership between the Jewish community and seven other groups focused on human rights and minority rights.

"Even those who are smart in our community do not want to be involved," said Kukliansky, a restitution lawyer. "People do not understand, really, that we are not playing with gays, but we are together against attacks on human rights."

Believed to be the first of its kind in the Baltic states, the new collaboration — dubbed simply the Human Rights Coalition — was established officially in late June but has been in the works for more than a year.

It brings together groups with highly specialized agendas — including the official body representing the Jewish community, the Lithuanian Gay League and the Roma Community Centre — and broader human rights-focused organizations.

Simon Gurevicius, executive director of Lithuania’s Jewish community, said those who told Kukliansky to avoid gay events don’t speak for the Jewish community as a whole.

"Those who spoke expressed their personal opinion — in a community you can find a whole spectrum of thoughts," he said. "I am sure you could find many who would also oppose these people from our community as well."

Kukliansky said the fight against homophobia and xenophobia is a universal cause, so joining the coalition was a simple decision.

"This should be an answer to all the homophobes and fascists which are so active in all of Europe," she said. "Why shouldn’t I support it?"

Birute Sabatuskaite, a lawyer with the Lithuanian Centre for Human Rights, said the coalition will help allow its member groups to pool their resources in confronting the threats they face.

Lithuania’s approximately 3,500 Jews live in relative security, but in recent years they have seen activity by extreme nationalist and neo-fascist groups, as well as instances of anti-Semitic vandalism. International Jewish groups also have strongly criticized the Lithuanian government for what they see as its failures in confronting anti-Semitism and the country’s role in the Holocaust.

Gurevicius said Lithuania is still struggling to overcome the Soviet-era mentality that "being different is bad.”

But minorities should not solely focus on their own interests, he said, adding that the Human Rights Coalition should make an effort to engage with Lithuanian society at large.

"The key is not only to try to look for a unified voice for minorities. The key is to find a way to be in dialogue with all the groups — without division into bigger or smaller ones," Gurevicius said. "In a world full of extremism and xenophobia, it is very important to look for allies."

He added, "Even though we all are different, we can live, share and learn one from another.”

The Lithuanian effort is modeled after similar coalitions in Ireland and the Netherlands, Sabatuskaite said, and it has already elicited positive reactions from her contacts in the Lithuanian parliament.

Margarita Jankauskaite, project manager for the Centre for Equality Advancement, said she doesn’t think the coalition will change how its member organizations operate but that it will send a strong public message.

"Everybody was specialized on their own agenda, so we were not united," she said. "Now we’ve become mature enough to decide to join to make our voices stronger together."

Vladimir Simonko, board chairman of the Lithuanian Gay League, said the coalition reflects a recognition that all Lithuanian minority communities share the same struggles and pressures.

"Before when we heard about issues against Jews or against the Roma people, we monitored it but did nothing for the rights of other minorities," he said. "But right now we are really stronger."

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