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Around the Jewish World: Greek Jews Angered by Request Not to Hold Religious Services in Shul

October 13, 1999
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Destroyed during World War II, the historic Etz Hayim Synagogue on the Greek island of Crete was rededicated over the weekend.

But the festive series of ceremonies were marred when a local Greek official asked that Jews refrain from worshiping at the synagogue.

The request came in a letter from the head of the prefecture of the port city of Hania, G. Katsanevakis, asking Greece’s Central Board of Jewish Communities to “do away with the religious ceremonies” at the synagogue because no Jews currently live in city.

In 1944, the 300 Jews living in Hania were deported to Auschwitz, but died when an Allied bomb sunk the transport ship. Their deaths ended a more-than-2,000- year Jewish presence on Crete.

The president of the central board, Moses Constantinis, reacted angrily to the letter from Katsanevakis and gave the immediate and very clear reply that in no way would the religious portion of the dedication ceremonies be canceled.

In his letter, Katsanevakis said that although he does not object to the restoration of the synagogue, no religious services should be held there.

He cited a 1938 law that a house of worship cannot operate unless there are 50 worshipers. Katsanevakis wrote the letter in response to an invitation from the central board to attend the ceremonies.

In an interview with a local television station, Constantinis described the law as “fascist,” noting that it was created during the reign of dictator John Metaxa.

Hania’s Bishop Irineos, who sided with Katsanevakis in opposing the services, contacted the Ministry of Religion and Education to enlist its support in their cause.

But Religion Minister Gerassimos Arsenis backed the Jewish community and sent a warm message that he asked be read during the dedication ceremonies, which went ahead with the participation of Greek officials and Jewish communal leaders from Greece, the United States, Europe and Israel.

On Saturday, Torah scrolls were installed in the synagogue as part of Shabbat services.

On Sunday, the official opening was held. It included a service in memory of the Jews of Crete.

According to tradition the synagogue was originally a Venetian church that was destroyed by pirates. It was given to the Jewish community in 1645.

The synagogue, which will be used as a center for cultural events, is now the only monument testifying to the Jewish presence in Crete. The first mention of the Jewish community of Crete, one of the oldest in Greece, dates back to Alexander the Great.

In 1996, with the support of the World Monuments Fund, Greece’s Jewish community launched a campaign to restore the synagogue.

The New York-based Ronald S. Lauder Foundation and the Greek Ministry of Culture were among those giving funds for the restoration project.

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