Tajikistan's synagogue could be razed in two weeks

The country's only remaining synagogue may be demolished to expand the presidential palace.

tajikistan shul 88.298 (photo credit: JTA)
tajikistan shul 88.298
(photo credit: JTA)
Despite widespread international protests, authorities in Tajikistan are still planning to demolish the country's only synagogue to make way for the expansion of a presidential palace, The Jerusalem Post has learned. And while the precise timing of the synagogue's destruction remains unclear, there are indications that it might be carried out before the end of the month. In February, local demolition teams began tearing down the century-old synagogue in the Tajik capital of Dushanbe, but halted in the wake of an outcry from abroad, though not before they had managed to raze the community's mikve, an office and a classroom. Pressure mounted on the Tajik government to find a solution, with the US government, various Jewish organizations, and even the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) expressing their displeasure with the plan to flatten the country's sole Jewish house of worship. But a recent report by Tajik news agency Avesta suggests that the fate of the present synagogue is once again in doubt. According to the report, Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmonov met last month with Alexander Mashkevich, head of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress (EAJC), and "promised to allocate a suitable site in central Dushanbe for the construction of a new synagogue." The new synagogue, which Mashkevich said would be financed by his organization together with unspecified Tajik sponsors and built at an alternative location, is intended to replace the current one, which remains on the chopping block. Contacted by phone, a spokesman for the Tajik embassy in Washington confirmed this arrangement, telling the Post, "We do not like to speak about destroying the synagogue in Dushanbe, but rather about relocating it elsewhere." "The synagogue was already partly destroyed, and soon it will be completely ruined," said Leonid Stonov, FSU Bureau Director of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews, a Washington-based advocacy group. While expressing support for the construction of a new synagogue, Stonov said "it was not understandable" why Tajik authorities felt the need in the first place to enlarge the presidential palace at the synagogue's expense. "We visited Dushanbe and the synagogue many times, and there was a lot of space for the new palace building without having to ruin the synagogue," he said. In a telephone interview, Rabbi Dovid Gurevich, the Chabad-Lubavitch movement's Chief Rabbi of Central Asia, said that on a visit to Dushanbe last month, he had urged Tajik officials not to tear down the synagogue. In meetings with the country's Chief Architect and members of parliament, the rabbi said he stressed that, "it is one thing to move it, but to destroy it over something like this is entirely different. Harming a synagogue will not be good for the country." The rabbi added that he would continue with his efforts to save the building and to strengthen the local Jewish community, which numbers just a few hundred people, many of them elderly. US officials have also conveyed their concerns to the Tajik government. Jon Larsen, public affairs officer at the US Embassy in Dushanbe, said via e-mail that both the American ambassador and the Deputy Chief of Mission "have raised this issue with appropriate Tajik authorities on a number of occasions." Tajik officials, he said, "understand the religious and cultural importance of the synagogue and the strong US interest in an outcome that meets the needs of the Jewish community in Dushanbe." In a recent letter addressed to Bobby Brown, Director of International Relations for the World Jewish Congress, a top UNESCO official criticized the Tajik plan to destroy the synagogue. The organization's Assistant Director-General for Culture wrote Brown that UNESCO had brought the matter "to the attention of the relevant authorities of Tajikistan," telling them that "such an act would be in contradiction with existing international standards for the protection of cultural heritage." Tajik officials in Dushanbe contacted by the Post, however, refused to comment on the issue, though one source said that the Tajik government had previously indicated that it hoped to clear the site of the old synagogue by the end of this month. If so, this would mean that the synagogue would be slated for destruction sometime within the next two weeks.