In 2015, the Lithuanian Seimas Parliament passed a resolution, authorizing the development of a conference center on the 500-year old Jewish cemetery. This holy site is also the ground on which over 50,000 graves rest.
The Old Jewish Cemetery at Piramónt, in the Shnípeshok district of Vilnius was the initial resting place of the Vilna Gaon together with other famous Torah luminaries.
Initially, the Committee for Protection of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe (CPJCE) and the Lithuanian Jewish Community Chair, Faina Kukliansky played ball with state-owned bank, Turto bankas, in efforts to realize the vision of the Vilnius Congress Center (VCC) and structure a framework which would comply with Jewish law.
The 2015 Seimas Resolution evoked a powerful outcry from the international Jewish community. Leading authorities on Jewish law, including a senior rabbinical court and the Conference of European Rabbis (CER) have ruled that the conference center development is a violation of Jewish law. Subsequent to the decisions of these leading Jewish authorities, both the Lithuanian Jewish Community and the CPJCE have signaled that they will not participate in the VCC project.
Located on less than one-quarter of the cemetery ground, lies the Sports Palace, a 1971 now deserted and derelict gymnasium from the Soviet era. It was initially built on the old cemetery contrary to international Human Rights Law.
In 2009, the Lithuanian Government and Lithuanian Jewish Community struck an agreement to protect the cemetery. The protocol divided the cemetery into zones to allow for any structural changes that may be necessary to secure the Sports Palace edifice. The external design of the Sports Palace features a unique style of Russian “brutal” architecture that many local architects believe needs to be protected.
Chairman of the Save Vilna Coalition, Mr. Dov Fried argues that the 2009 Agreement was drafted to protect the cemetery, not to build a conference center. The Chairman believes the agreement is being manipulated to green-light the VCC project. “It was never the intention of the signatories to the 2009 Agreement to build a conference center or to use the ground for another purpose, other than as a cemetery.”
The lack of support for the development by the Lithuanian Jewish community and the CPJCE is another spoke in the wheel that has led analysts to believe that the realization of the VCC project has been sown with pockets of doubt. The 2009 Agreement requires supervision by the Lithuanian Jewish community and the CPJCE for any project on the Shnípeshok grounds. Seemingly, that will not be forthcoming.
International Constitutional lawyer David Schwartz believes that the VCC project has a bigger challenge. The 2015 Seimas Resolution No. 597 that effectively authorizes the project faces a test as to whether it is constitutional, because it may violate Articles 22 & 26 of the Lithuania Constitution and Articles 8 & 9 of the European Rights Convention. These terms of the constitution essentially protect religious freedom from unlawful interference.
“The provisions in the Lithuanian and EU Constitution are dealbreakers,” says Schwartz. “Rabbinical authorities have determined that the VCC project is a violation of Jewish law, so its difficult to comprehend why the development would not infringe on the religious freedom causes as provided by the Lithuanian Constitution.
Other constitutional lawyers have expressed similar reservations, as to whether the 2015 Seimas Resolution would pass the litmus test.
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