VILNIUS - In the latest twist of an ongoing controversy over construction on an alleged Jewish cemetery, a team of Israeli geologists has been chosen to come to Lithuania to survey the site.
The cemetery was hurled into the international spotlight last year with the first phase of construction of luxury apartments on a plot of land that allegedly borders the cemetery. The construction has now been completed.
The Jewish community previously demanded that the construction be stopped amid concerns that it extended onto the cemetery.
"We can see that the damage has already been done, but we want to protect other sites in the future," Lithuanian Jewish Community head Chaim Birshtein said.
The project's developer said, however, the construction was entirely outside the former Jewish graveyard's territory and supplied media with a scheme that was approved by the Vilnius city government and county administration in 2005.
Jewish leaders raised concerns over the size of the investigated area, the choice of the contractor and the reliability of the equipment in a survey that was to be conducted last year. They stated that they will only trust tests that are carried out by members of their own faith.
"These tests are just a game that the government is playing 's we know that there is a cemetery there. We have maps from earlier centuries to confirm its location," Birshtein said.
"This is not the issue," he said.
The Lithuanian government allocated 353,000 litas (102,000 euros) to fund the new round of tests, which will be carried out by the Israeli company Geotec.
The controversial building operation was authorized by former mayor of Vilnius Arturas Zuokas just days before leaving office. The municipal government's public relations representative, Silvestra Miskiniene, would not comment other than to confirm that Zuokas gave permission on Feb 15, 2007 and that all other permissions had been received.
In response to the Jewish community's demands that Jewish geologists must survey the area, the Lithuanian government allocated the task of finding a suitable company to the Lithuanian geological survey. They found the company Geotec and are finalizing the details.
The issue is a sore spot for Jewish people who have taken the building project as an affront to their community.
"Why would we want to live in a country where after you are buried, your bones are just thrown in the bin? Especially after I paid for my plot," Burshtein said.
The exact area that will be tested is not agreed upon, but department head Juozas Mockevicius said that the possibilities would depend on the technology available when testing. He thinks, however, that a Lithuanian company could do the job.
"I don't see any reason why our companies can't operate, but the Jewish community saw differently," Mockevivius said.
"I think it's the same radars, the same methods and I would say that Lithuanian geologists know Vilnius better," he said.
The furious Burshtein also claims that a guard of the construction company assaulted him. "When I went to the company a guard attacked me and gave me brain concussion," he said.
The building project was first brought to public attention when a Jewish community from the United States cried foul in 2005. They found it unacceptable that a building could be built on the site.
The cemetery was closed by Czarist Russian authorities in 1831. Then in the 1950s, Soviet authorities built a stadium and concert hall on land that borders the cemetery.
Preliminary results of the tests will be ready by July 6.