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International Coalition Invokes Freeze on Controversial Conference Center

Updated: Jul 6, 2021

An order of stay has been served on Turto bankas and multiple Lithuanian Government Ministries, enforcing a freeze on all further advancement of the Vilnius Congress Center (VCC), pursuant to a 2009 Agreement.

The VCC is a controversial project that is authorized by a 2015 Seimas Resolution. The resolution calls for the development of the conference center on a Jewish cemetery. The proposal has been criticized as Antisemitic, a transgression of a 2002 International Agreement between the US and Lithuania and a violation of Human Rights pertaining specifically to the European Human Rights Convention (articles 8 & 9) and the UN Convention on Civil and Political Rights (article 18), as these articles protect the right to religion and private life.

Constitutional lawyers in Lithuania have further criticized the 2015 Seimas resolution stating that it is unconstitutional and violates article 22 and article 26 of the Lithuanian constitution, whereby article 22 states, “The law and courts shall protect everyone from arbitrary or unlawful interference with his private and family life, as well as from encroachment upon his honour and dignity.”

Similarly, article 26 states, “Freedom of thought, conscience, and religion shall not be restricted. Everyone shall have the right to freely choose any religion or belief and, either alone or with others, in private or in public, to profess his religion, to perform religious ceremonies, as well as to practise and teach his belief. No one may compel another person or be compelled to choose or profess any religion or belief. The freedom to profess and spread religion or belief may not be limited otherwise than by law and only when this is necessary to guarantee the security of society, public order, the health or morals of people, or other basic rights or freedoms of the person. Parents and guardians shall, without restrictions, take care of the religious and moral education of their children and wards according to their own convictions.”

On the other side of the pond, US lawmakers have expressed concern of the 2015 Seimas resolution as it violates a 2008 Senate Resolution and the US Protect Cemeteries Act (H.R. 4028) of 2014, an amendment to the International Freedom Act of 1998. 

In 2017 Members of Congress penned a letter to then Lithuanian President, Dalia Grybauskaite urging her to move the proposed conference center to another location. In July 2018 Members of the Senate also expressed their opposition to the conference center.

The 2008 Senate Resolution was inked in response to a similar desecration between 2005 and 2007, when the Lithuanian government authorized the construction of an apartment building on the cemetery.

The 2008 Senate Resolution reacted swiftly and passed the resolution stating: "The Senate expresses strongly to the Government of Lithuania that the cemetery located in the Snipiskes area of Vilnius, Lithuania, which is an important part of the cultural heritage of the Jewish people, should not be further desecrated."

The resolution stated:

1. Cemeteries are sacred sites that are of great spiritual, cultural, and historical significance to many religious and ethnic groups.

2. Congress is committed to protecting and preserving the heritage and sacred sites of national, religious, and ethnic groups, which includes cemeteries in the United States and abroad.

3. Cemeteries around the world have and continue to be defaced or destroyed as a direct result of their affiliation with a particular religious or spiritual group.

4. Such attacks constitute an assault on the fundamental right to freedom of religion, and are especially egregious when sponsored or tolerated by the local or national governments in the countries in which such offenses occur.

The 2009 Agreement co-signed by Mr. Simonas Gurevicius, the Executive Director of the Lithuanian Jewish Community, requires that the Lithuanian Jewish community supervise any development on the Snipiskes Jewish cemetery. Other co-signers were Dr. Simonas Alperavicius, Chairman of the Lithuanian Jewish community; Ms Faina Kukliansky, Chairman of the Vilnius Jewish Community; Rabbi Schlesinger, Head of the Committee for the Protection of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe (CPJCE), Rabbi Gluck, Representative for the CPJCE; together with representatives from the Ministry of Culture, Foreign Affairs and Cultural Heritage Department.

The tombstones from the Snipiskes Jewish cemetery were harvested and used for building materials during the post-Nazi Soviet era, however a recent radar scan confirmed that there are thousands of skeletal remains still buried on the cemetery. The cemetery is the resting place to over 50,000 Jewish graves.

The 2009 Agreement defines the Jewish Lithuanian community as the organization which: 1) represents the interests of Lithuanian Jews and 2) collaborates with international Jewish organizations regarding the issue of the Jewish cemetery in Snipiskes.

Chairman of the Save Vilna Coalition Mr. Dov Fried emphasized that the International Jewish community will not recognize any community or organization in Lithuania that calls itself a Jewish organization and supports the VCC project.

The VCC project has been proclaimed as a development which is de facto violation of Jewish law pursuant to leading authorities in Jewish law. Accordingly, it is legally impossible for any Jewish organization in Lithuania to officially supervise or support the VCC, as any organization which supports the VCC will not be afforded any collaboration from the International Jewish community. To qualify as a Lithuanian Jewish community the representative needs to prove that it has support and collaborates with the International Community as defined by the 2009 Agreement.

In January 2020, a senior rabbinical court in Israel certified that the VCC project is illegal and contrary to Jewish law, ruling that no party may participate in the project. The decision cited the CPJCE, declaring that the respective committee is prohibited from being part of the VCC project.

The court ruling was followed by a similar decision from the Conference of European Rabbis (CER), the single most authoritative Jewish authority in Europe who endorsed the ruling of the rabbinical court. The CPJCE then expressly accepted the decisions of the rabbinical court and the CER, posting the rabbinical court’s ruling on its Twitter account as confirmation of that acceptance.

The full details of the saga were fully reported by investigative journalist Saul Kemp in an article entitled, “Lithuanian Jewish Community Cuts ties to Controversial Cemetery Project.”

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