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Mamilla Cemetery in Jerusalem

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Synopsis

The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and other groups have filed a petition on behalf of the Palestinian descendants of those buried in an ancient Muslim cemetery, the Mamilla Cemetery, in Jerusalem. The petition, which was filed with several international bodies, urges Israel to: halt construction of the “Museum of Tolerance” by the Simon Wiesenthal Center; investigate human rights violations; rebury human remains; and declare the Mamilla Cemetery a protected antiquities site.  For additional information, please visit the Mamilla Campaign website at www.mamillacampaign.org.

Status

Desecration of Mamilla Cemetery continues for the construction of the “Museum of Tolerance,” despite efforts by CCR and the Campaign to Preserve Mamilla Jerusalem Cemetery, as well as international condemnation, including Human Rights Council resolutions, a public petition signed by nearly 10,000 individuals from around the world, a letter from 84 respected archaeologists decrying the archaeological practices employed on the site, a resolution by the Central Conference of American Rabbis opposing the project, and the opposition of numerous prominent Israeli scholars.  CCR and the Campaign continue to advocate for the preservation of this historic and sacred site.

Description

The Petitioners are individuals whose human rights have been violated by the destruction and desecration of an ancient Muslim cemetery, the Ma’man Allah (Mamilla) cemetery in Jerusalem, by the government of Israel working in conjunction with the Simon Wiesenthal Center (“SWC”) of Los Angeles, California. Petitioners also include human rights non-governmental organizations concerned about this desecration.  A significant portion of the cemetery is being destroyed and hundreds of human remains are being desecrated so that SWC can build a facility to be called the “Center for Human Dignity - Museum of Tolerance” on this sacred Muslim site.

The Mamilla Cemetery is an ancient Muslim burial ground and holy site believed to date back to the 7th century when companions of the Prophet Muhammad were reputedly buried there. Numerous saints of the Sufi faith 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 a historical site in 1927, and the British Mandate authorities pronounced it an antiquities site in 1944. It was an active burial ground until 1948. After the new State of Israel seized the western part of Jerusalem in 1948, the cemetery fell under Israeli control, and like other Islamic endowment properties, or waqf, the Mamilla Cemetery was taken over by the Custodian for Absentee Property. Since then, Muslim authorities have not been allowed to maintain the cemetery.

The Israeli government and the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) are currently building the “Center for Human Dignity–Museum of Tolerance” on a portion of the Mamilla Cemetery. This construction project has resulted in the disinterment of hundreds of graves, and the whereabouts of the countless human remains that have been disposed of are unknown. Israel and the SWC plan to continue the erection of the museum atop thousands of more graves.

The importance of the Mamilla cemetery to Muslims is well known to Israel. In 1948, the year control of the cemetery was taken over by Israel, the Israeli Religious Affairs Ministry recognized Mamilla “to be one of the most prominent Muslim cemeteries, where seventy thousand Muslim warriors of [Saladin’s] armies are interred along with many Muslim scholars. Israel will always know to protect and respect this site.” As recently as 1986, in response to an investigation by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) regarding Israel’s development projects on Mamilla, the Israeli government stated that “no project exists for the deconsecration of the site and that on the contrary the site and its tombs are to be safeguarded.” Despite these reassurances and the cemetery’s inclusion in an Israeli Antiquities Authority list of “Special Antiquities Sites,” Israel in fact destroyed a large section of the cemetery during the period in which the statement was made.

Despite officially recognizing its importance, Israel has steadily encroached on the Mamilla Cemetery with the erection of buildings, parks, and even parking lots. The construction of the “Center for Human Dignity – Museum of Tolerance” is only the latest such development project. Israel and the SWC have attempted to justify this development by claiming that the cemetery is no longer sanctified, based on a 1964 proclamation by a Shari’a or Islamic law judge who lacked legitimacy in the Muslim community. The President of the Shari’a Court of Appeals in Israel has since deemed this ruling to be void and affirmed that the sanctity of cemeteries is eternal in Islam.

Israel has an obligation to respect and protect the holy sites of its minority religious and ethnic populations, including Mamilla cemetery, under international law, United Nations resolutions, and its own domestic law. Despite Israel’s legal obligations, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled in favor of construction of the museum, and the government has refused to halt the disinterment of bodies and the destruction of the ancient cemetery. For this reason, the petitioners have decided to bring this issue to the international community with the aid of human rights organizations such as CCR.

Video & Media

Continued excavation on Mamilla.

This video from within the SWC building site shows both the white outer perimeter fence of the site and, as the camera pans to the right, the inner fenced off enclosure. Initial infrastructural work had begun in 2011 and is currently suspended, with no activity on the site except within the inner enclosure, which is operated and accessed by the Israeli Archeological Authority (IAA). Pumps and hoses to evacuate heavy rainwater from deeper sections of the site also are evident, and owing to the uneven floor of the site, footbridges secure movement around the site during the initial phase of laying utility cables, hoses, and pipes.

Timeline

February 10, 2010: Petitioners filed Petition for Urgent Action on Human Rights Violations by Israel: Desecration of Ma’man Allah (Mamilla) Muslim Cemetery in the Holy City of Jerusalem.

June 14, 2010:  Petitioners filed an Addendum to their Petition, providing updates and new evidence.

August 17, 2010: Petitioners submitted updates on the further desecration of Mamilla Cemetery, the continuing work on the “Museum of Tolerance,” the reported decision by Israeli authorities to permit the construction of a judicial complex on another portion of the cemetery, as well as the recent bulldozing of newly refurbished grave-markers and some older headstones. Letters were sent to the U.N. Special Rapporteurs on Freedom of Religion and Belief and on Contemporary Forms of Racism; the Independent Expert in the Field of Cultural Rights; the High Commissioner for Human Rights; the Director General of UNESCO; and the Federal Councillor of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs of the Swiss Confederation.

January 19, 2011: An Israeli district court rejected an injunction brought by the Israeli Shari’a court-appointed caretakers of the cemetery to stop the destruction of an additional 200 grave markers that had been recently renovated with the acquiescence of Israeli authorities.

January 21, 2011: Petitioners submitted an additional appeal to UNESCO to protect Mamilla Cemetery, urging UNESCO to fulfill its mandate to protect and preserve important cultural heritage sites.

February 14, 2011
: The U.N. Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief released its report on communications with governments, noting that it had not received a reply from Israel responding to its concerns regarding the Mamilla Cemetery nor to its requests that Israeli authorities provide information on measures to ensure that excavation and construction work respect and protect cultural heritage, cultural property, and freedom of religion or belief.

June 25-26, 2011:  Israeli bulldozers entered an intact part of Mamilla Cemetery and destroyed and disposed of nearly 100 grave markers.  The covert night operation came just three weeks after a Jerusalem municipal planning committee granted permission for construction of the “Museum of Tolerance” to begin within three months. The bulldozers retreated hastily when their operators realized that they were being filmed by local media and activists.

July 12, 2011: Israeli Interior Ministry approves construction plans for the “Museum of Tolerance,” providing the final administrative green light for construction to begin immediately.

July 21, 2011: Letter from 45 distinguished community leaders from Jerusalem and Israel is submitted to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Director-General of UNESCO, urging immediate intervention to stop the desecration of the cemetery by putting pressure on Israel and sending a delegation to investigate.

October 20, 2011: 84 leading archaeologists worldwide, with support from CCR and the Campaign, urged Board Members of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the mayor of Jerusalem, and the Head of the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) to immediately halt current and future construction of the “Museum of Tolerance” on the site of Mamilla. Their letter also notes that the recent treatment of the site constituted a violation of archaeological, ethical and human rights principles.

March 1, 2012: CCR and the Campaign send a letter to Rabbi Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center urging him to stop construction of the Museum on the ancient Mamilla cemetery and requesting a meeting.     

March 26, 2012: New evidence of continuing excavations on the “Museum of Tolerance” site suggesting that it still contains archaeological artifacts and human remains, contrary to Simon Wiesenthal Center claims that bedrock has been reached on all portions of the site. Video footage here shows the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) inner closure and excavation pit. On this same date, the Advisor to the Mayor of Jerusalem signed a letter to CCR alleging that all of the exhumed graves had been “copied and re-buried, in coordination with representatives of the Muslim religion.”

May 31, 2012: New contract for the Museum is approved by six of thirty-one Jerusalem City Council Members. 

June 5, 2012: CCR and the Campaign respond, with copy to U.N. authorities, to Mayor of Jerusalem Nir Barkat, requesting that he provide information about the location of the reburials alleged in the March 26 letter and about the parties involved in the said reburial process. Moreover, CCR and the Campaign urged the Mayor to back the relocation of the museum project and work to ensure that sites of such religious, cultural, and historical importance are protected as mandated under international law.

June 5, 2014: CCR and the Campaign sent a letter to the Chairman of the Organization of Islamic Countries and the State of Palestine’s Representative to UNESCO urging them to take immediate action to oppose UNESCO’s relationship with the Simon Wiesenthal Center and to urge UNESCO to preserve what remains of Mamilla Cemetery in Jerusalem.