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CONTACT: Center for Constitutional Rights
Descendants File Protest with United Nations over Israeli Plans to Build on 12th Century Muslim Cemetery
Simon Wiesenthal Center Intends “Museum of Tolerance” for Site Despite Desecration
“The callous disregard for the most basic values of tolerance involved in building this museum in the most ancient and revered Muslim cemetery in Jerusalem is not just an affront by the Simon Wiesenthal Center to the many Jerusalemites whose families, like my own, have had ancestors buried there for many centuries,” said Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies Department of History at Columbia University in New York. “It is also a blatant violation of the ethical, moral and legal responsibilities of the Israeli government, which itself repeatedly protested the desecration of ancient Jewish cemeteries in Jerusalem between 1948 and 1967.”
The construction project has resulted in the disinterment and disposal of hundreds of graves and human remains, the whereabouts of which are currently unknown. Frank Gehry, the original architect for the museum, has withdrawn his designs and his participation in the project.
This will be the first known time Palestinian individuals have taken collective action against Israel to bring such an issue before a UN forum and comes after all remedies in Israel were exhausted. The families, NGO’s and attorneys argue the desecration of the cemetery violates international conventions protecting cultural heritage, the manifestation of religious beliefs, and the right to family.
Said Maria LaHood, Center for Constitutional Rights Senior Attorney, “Left with no recourse in Israel, families of people buried in Mamilla cemetery have come together to petition the United Nations to safeguard their international human rights to be free from discrimination, to manifest religious beliefs, and to have their cultural heritage protected. We call on the international community to denounce this shameful desecration of a historic Muslim cemetery in Jerusalem.”
The plan to build a “Center for Human Dignity – Museum of Tolerance” on the remains of important Muslim figures and men, women and children buried there over the course of a thousand years has faced widespread opposition from Muslim, Christian and Jewish personalities in Israel, Palestine and around the world. Nonetheless, the Israeli Supreme Court has ruled in favor of construction of the Museum, and the Israeli government has refused to halt the disinterment of human remains and the destruction of the ancient cemetery.
The Center for Constitutional Rights and others are petitioning the United Nations Special Rapporteurs on Freedom of Religion and Belief and on Contemporary Forms of Racism; the Independent Expert on Culture; the High Commissioner for Human Rights; and the Director General of UNESCO on behalf of Palestinian families whose ancestors are buried in the cemetery. The parties are asking these international bodies to act urgently to demand that the government of Israel halt further construction of the “Center for Human Dignity – Museum of Tolerance” on the Mamilla Cemetery site, investigate human rights violations, document and reveal to petitioners the whereabouts of all human remains and artifacts, recover and rebury all human remains where they were originally found in coordination with the proper Muslim authorities, and declare the Mamilla Cemetery an antiquity to be preserved and protected.
Said Stanley Sheinbaum, Jewish leader in Los Angeles and former President of the Los Angeles Police Commission, “In regard to the proposed construction of a new Simon Wiesenthal Center on the ancient Mamilla Cemetery, I would with great respect for both Palestinians and Israelis suggest that Israeli governmental authorities seek out an alternative building site upon which to build the Museum of Tolerance. It seems to me that to desecrate hundreds of human remains on this sacred burial site in order to build a center dedicated to tolerance is particularly ironic."
The Mamilla Cemetery has been a Muslim burial ground and holy site since as early as the 7th century, when companions of the Prophet Muhammad were reputedly buried there. In addition, numerous Sufi saints and thousands of other officials, scholars, notables, and Jerusalemite families have been buried in the cemetery over the last 1000 years. The Muslim Supreme Council declared the cemetery an historical site in 1927, and the British Mandate authorities pronounced it an antiquities site in 1944. It was an active burial ground until 1948, when the new State of Israel seized the western part of Jerusalem and the cemetery fell under Israeli control.
Read more about the Mamilla Cemetery on CCR's case page.