Tajikistan's government has begun demolishing the Central Asian nation's only synagogue, offering in exchange a plot of land far from where most Jewish community members live.
The work started last month. So far, demolition crews have destroyed part of the synagogue's property, including the mikvah (ritual bath) and classroom space, according to sources in Dushanbe, the capital city. The synagogue's yard was turned into a dump for the refuse.
According to local residents, the road to the synagogue was damaged and people now have to walk over demolition debris to get to services. The remaining part of the old, one-story building is slated for demolition later this year.
The conflict over Dushanbe's 100-year-old synagogue began several years ago. In May 2004, Dushanbe city authorities ordered the Jewish community to vacate the synagogue so the site could be cleared for a Palace of Nations and national park. Authorities rejected the community's proposal to give the synagogue a facelift and include it in the new architectural complex.
After negotiations with the city, the Jewish community was given a plot of land in a remote area to build a new synagogue, something the small, aging and impoverished community could not afford to do.
Dushanbe's Jewish community is estimated at about 400 people, primarily Bukharian Jews. Most are elderly, and about 200 regularly attended services in the old synagogue. Aside from religious services and some charitable activities, the community runs a small Sunday school.
Community representatives said they do not believe anti-Semitism is behind the demolition plan. Instead, some sources indicate the community had poor relations with the government and could not reach a viable solution with city authorities.
Two years ago, Lev Leviev, president of the Federation of Jewish Communities (FJC) of the former Soviet Union and head of the World Congress of Bukharian Jews, called on Tajik President Emomali Rakhmonov to scrap the synagogue demolition plan. His proposal, he said, would not have affected the construction of a palace and park.
A federation source said this week that the group condemned the synagogue demolition and has suggested that city authorities might give the Jewish community space for its worship services and other activities.
The federation, a Chabad-led umbrella group that has built most of the new synagogues in the former Soviet Union, normally does not undertake such projects for communities with less than 1,000 members.
Dushanbe's Jewish population is only a fraction of the once-numerous community, made up of indigenous Bukharian Jews and a large number of World War II refugees, Ashkenazi Jews from European parts of the Soviet Union. In the 1990s, most left for Russia, Israel and the United States during a civil war between rival local clans following the Soviet Union's collapse.
The FJC said it would monitor the situation and try to find a solution with the local government.