VILNIUS – On June 9, 2015, the Government of the Republic of Lithuania passed resolution No. 597 acknowledging the Vilnius Concert and Sports Hall reconstruction and rearrangement. It was slated as an economic project of State importance, coined the Vilnius Congress Center Reconstruction.
The respective resolution set out the vision of a conference center of grandiose proportions, stating:
“It will have a significant impact on the Lithuanian economic, social, cultural, political life and (or) for the definite field of public relations state, as established and operating in new Vilnius Congress Centre will allow attracting further both foreign and local tourist flows to Vilnius and Lithuania . New business relationships, contracts during international events will be made. International business and foreign investment across Lithuania will be promoted.”
The proposal articulated the extent to which the plan would enhance Lithuania’s cultural contribution to the world:
“After implementation of the Vilnius Congress Centre project, the conditions to organize not only a high-level international conferences and congresses, but also cultural events, will be provided. The increase of Lithuania, as a cultural region, with the possibility of exhibitions, cultural events, concerts, educational programs organization will be seen.”
And finally, in its efforts to develop the new conference center, the government guaranteed protection stating, “It would not only create a missing business (conference) tourism infrastructure, but also protect abandoned and unused Culture heritage infrastructure in Vilnius city center.”
“The Vilnius Concert and Sports Hall building complex, located at Rinktinės str. 1, Vilnius, is a unique place, positive for the activities of congress center and urban structure of the city, and the optimal accessibility of the object in terms of cultural and natural environment, events security and service. After the reconstruction of the building complex and having applied it for the congresses, conferences and other events, it would not only create a missing business (conference) tourism infrastructure, but also protect abandoned and unused Culture heritage infrastructure in Vilnius city center.”
However, what the proposal didn’t mention, was that the conference center in Vilnius was to be developed on a 500-year old Jewish cemetery. This property which enjoys international protection from desecration in perpetuity, was the final resting place of some of the most prestigious Jewish sages of the times. These included R. Menahem Mannes Chajes (d. 1636), one of Vilna’s earliest Chief Rabbis; R. Moshe Rivkes (d. 1671), author of Be’er Ha-Golah, a classic commentary on the Shulhan Arukh; R. Shlomo Zalman (d. 1788), younger brother of R. Hayyim of Volozhin and a favorite disciple of the Gaon of Vilna; R. Elijah b. Solomon (d. 1797), the Gaon of Vilna; and R. Abraham Danzig (d. 1820), author of Chaye Adam, a digest of practical Jewish law, together with tens of thousands of graves of all the Jewish men, women and children who had lived and died in Vilna between the years of 1592 and 1831.
What the proposal doesn’t say is that the Lithuanian government’s initiative had been condemned by political leaders, congressmen, senators and the White House. What the proposal doesn’t say is that leading Rabbis from across the globe have vehemently opposed the plan, that community leaders of the 1-billion strong evangelical world community have threatened to boycott Lithuanian tourism, if the Vilnius Congress Center is ever built. Most certainly, in lieu of the Lithuanian central bank’s prediction that a fifth of the economy could be wiped because of the coronavirus pandemic, a boycott may well be the last straw. Turning off the taps of tourism would inevitably lead to massive unemployment and economic collapse.
In May 2020 the Lithuanian government announced that it would allocate a state support grant of $45 million towards tourism. A financial analyst who is monitoring the impact of coronavirus on Lithuania said that a tourist boycott would be the equivalent of flushing the $45 million allocation down the toilet.
Additionally, the government’s construction plan violates both the Geneva convention and the EU Charter of Human Rights. Both condemn construction on a cemetery.
Proponents of the plan to build the conference center argue that in the spirit of protecting human bones and skeletal remains in the construction process, “the highest level of supervision will be asserted.”
However, the leading Jewish authority on Jewish law, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky has already ruled that “it is forbidden to use the cemetery for any other purpose other than as a resting place for the deceased.”
Similarly, a respected Rabbinical court in Israel issued a judgement that the Lithuanian government’s proposal is a blatant desecration of the cemetery and that it is forbidden to build the conference center under any circumstances.
Already members in the Vilnius Jewish community voiced concern that Turto Bankas, the government proxy that is mandated to see the project through to fruition, is using illegal means to acquire authorization from various parties.
One member of the Jewish community, who would only comment on condition of anonymity said, “The system is corrupt to the core. Everyone is receiving under the table payoffs. In most democratic countries, people go to jail for this type of thing.”