REPORTING FROM JERUSALEM -- A group of prominent international archaeologists are among the latest people to publicly denounce plans to build a museum on the site of a centuries-old Muslim cemetery not far from Jerusalem’s historic Old City.
In a letter addressed to the board of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, the mayor of Jerusalem and the director of the Israel Antiquities Authority, all of whom are backing the controversial project, 84 archeologists argued that construction of the museum would desecrate the sanctity of the site, known to be the location of the Mamilla Cemetery, or Ma'man Allah, the sanctuary of God.
The site is “one of the most historically renowned and ancient Muslim cemeteries in the world," said the group, which includes American, European, Arab and Israeli architects. “Such insensitivity towards religious rites, towards cultural, national and religious patrimony, and towards families whose ancestors lay buried there causes grave concern from a scientific and humanitarian standpoint.”
The project is slated for 33 acres of land in the heart of Jerusalem. The Jerusalem Municipality gave the property to the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
However, the project has been dogged by lawsuits filed by opponents who say not only would it defile a sacred site, but it's also too large. Differences over architectural design and a turnover of architects have also slowed the project's launch.
The archaeologists contend that such treatment of the burial site would not have occurred if were a Jewish burial site, and they quoted an Israeli official from the Ministry of Religious Affairs as saying that excavations would immediately stop "if one Jewish skeleton were found."
But the Wiesenthal Center has defeated legal challenges in Israeli courts and has vowed to press ahead with the museum.
-- Maher Abukhater
Photo: The excavation site of the Simon Wiesenthal Center's planned Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem. Credit: Al Aqsa Foundation