Belarus lawmakers protest destruction of Jewish sites

MINSK - Seventy-five Belarusian lawmakers appealed to President Alexander Lukashenko on Tuesday to stop the destruction of Jewish cultural landmarks in the capital Minsk.

In the appeal - a rare show of dissent in the pro-Lukashenko parliament - 75 members of the 109-member House of Representatives demanded the immediate end to construction on the site of a 19th-century synagogue and over the foundation of a ruined 16th-century synagogue.

The lawmakers said they would form a joint commission with Jewish organizations to investigate "the actions of top officials in the barbaric destruction of the historic center of Minsk." However, many top lawmakers derided the appeal. "We live in a Slavic country, not a Jewish-Masonic one," said Sergei Kostyan, deputy chairman of the international affairs committee.

Jewish groups praised the lawmakers' action. "Belarusian lawmakers are making the first attempt to stop anti-Semitism at government level," said Yakov Gutman, president of the World Association of Belarusian Jews. A year ago, a former 19th-synagogue was torn down by decision of the Minsk city government and the Culture Ministry and turned into a construction site. Separately, officials plan to turn the site of a ruined 16th-century synagogue into a parking lot.

Jewish groups say Belarusian authorities have been reluctant to hand over former synagogues that were taken away from the community in the Soviet era. The groups accuse the government of turning a blind eye to what they say is growing anti-Semitism in the country.

Belarus was home to a substantial Jewish minority before the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Of the 6 million Jews who died in Europe during World War II, 800,000 were killed by Nazis in Belarus. Soviet discrimination prompted many Jews to hide their background, and many fled to Israel or the West following the 1991 Soviet collapse. About 27,000 Jews remain in the country of 10 million.

Lukashenko has cracked down on dissent and media freedom, and the country's parliament is controlled by forces loyal to him.

By The Associated Press

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