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If a Ukrainian appeals court has its way, the Breslav Hassidic sect will lose control over the burial place of the sect's founder, Rabbi Nachman of Breslav, to a non-Jewish Ukrainian building contractor and parliamentarian.
The Hassidic master's gravesite is the focus of mass pilgrimages, a major tourist attraction and moneymaker. Last Rosh Hashana, 24,000 secular and religious, Sephardi and Ashkenazi worshippers descended on the sleepy, undeveloped town of Uman, Ukraine, to pray and be near the bones of the rabbi.
However, Pietro Pavlivich Kusmenko, a building contractor and a member of the Ukrainian parliament with extensive political connections, has now won a case in the Kiev appeals court against the Breslav World Center, an organization that owns the gravesite and surrounding buildings.
The legal dispute began four years ago when a man named Igor Lifshitz, who was given power of attorney by the Breslav Center to pay bills on its behalf, signed a contract with Kusmenko to develop the gravesite and the surrounding area at a cost of $5 million.
The contract stipulated that a fine of $2.5m. would be paid by the Breslav World Center if it chose to annul the agreement. According to the court ruling, since Breslav backed out it must now pay the fine.
The Breslav Center refused to pay the fine, claiming that it was the victim of extortion. Kusmenko may soon receive permission to put a lien on the gravesite and surrounding property.
However, Rabbi Nasan Maimon, director of the Breslav World Center, told The Jerusalem Post Thursday that Lifshitz never received permission to sign a contract with Kusmenko.
"Lifshitz is a swindler," said Maimon. "We never agreed to allow Kusmenko to develop the gravesite. So why should we pay him?"
Meanwhile, the Breslav Center's legal adviser, Gilad Corinaldi, sent a letter to Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni asking her to raise the issue of Rabbi Nachman's burial site during her meeting next week with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushenko.
Yushenko is slated to arrive in Israel on Wednesday for a short visit to discuss a wide range of issues including nuclear proliferation, Iran, Ukrainian anti-Semitism and Holocaust restitution.
Jewish property issues will most likely be one of the subjects that will be discussed with Yushenko during his visits with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, President Shimon Peres and Livni, said a Foreign Ministry source, but refused to be more specific.
The source added that Israel's Foreign Ministry usually would not intervene in legal matters such as a dispute over property rights, especially when it is possible to ensure free access to the gravesite even if ownership is in non-Jewish hands.
However, Corinaldi, who gained experience with international law governing the protection of holy sites while representing Gush Katif settlers in their fight to prevent the government from destroying synagogues during the Gaza disengagement, said that putting a lien on Rabbi Nachman's gravesite and liquidating it to pay off a debt was prohibited according to international law.
"The gravesite is a holy place for hundreds of thousands of Jews. Attempts by the Ukrainian government to forcibly take away control from the Jews is a desecration. If we can't reach a settlement through diplomatic channels or through the Ukrainian legal system we will appeal to the International Court of Human Rights [in] Strausbourg," said Corinaldi.
The ongoing legal battle has also raised the issue of disinterring Rabbi Nachman from Uman and bringing his remains to Israel for burial. A fringe group within the Breslav Hassidic sect, which has no central authority, is pushing for the disinterment. But Maimon said that it was completely out of the question.
"Rabbi Nachman specifically asked to be buried in Uman which is the site of a mass murder of 30,000 Jews - men, women and children - at the hands of Cossacks and Haidamaks. These righteous Jews chose to be hacked to death rather than convert to Christianity. He cannot be moved from that place," he said.
Maxim Osavoliuk, spokesman for the Ukrainian Embassy in Israel, refrained from commenting.