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House makes cemetery desecration a violation of religious freedom

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WASHINGTON (JTA) – The House adopted legislation that makes the desecration of cemeteries around the world a violation of religious freedom.

The Protect Cemeteries Act passed Wednesday by the U.S. House of Representatives amends the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 to include the vandalizing of cemeteries as one of many infringements to the freedom of religion.

The Senate must approve the measure for it to become a law.

If adopted, the United States could penalize countries that obstruct religious freedom by cutting foreign aid, imposing trade sanctions, and canceling cultural and scientific exchanges.

“This legislation would be a new and important tool in our fight against the desecration of cemeteries,” said Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.), who introduced the legislation in February after hearing the concerns of her constituents. “It would combat religiously motivated vandalism of cemeteries and also prevent developers from building over cemeteries, a new and emerging threat in places where there are no Jewish communities left to protect burial grounds.”

Speaking Wednesday on the House floor, Meng said, “Unfortunately anti-Semitism and religious intolerance remain all too prevalent in our world. We grapple with these issues in some form every day.”

Agudath Israel of America, one of a number organizations that has lobbied for passage of such a bill, praised Meng for initiating the bill and said the legislation had particular resonance for Jews.

“It goes without saying that the pain and tragic reality of the continuing desecration — particularly in Eastern Europe, where cemeteries are the lone vestiges of a once vibrant, but now decimated, Jewish life — penetrates to the very core of the Jewish soul,” Rabbi Abba Cohen, Aguda’s Washington director, said in a statement.

“In addition, these occurrences are stark reminders that the scourge of anti-Semitism remains a danger and a threat,” he said.

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