Lithuania Retracts Plans to Build on Old Jewish Cemetery

Also, the only surviving synagogue the Latvian capital is reopened after two years of renovations.

Government officials in Lithuania reached agreement Wednesday with Jewish organizations over the future of an historic cemetery in the capital city Vilnius, putting an end to a long-running dispute over the site.

The Snipiskes cemetery was closed in 1831 during the Tsarist era, and a sports center was constructed over part of the site during the Soviet occupation of Lithuania.

Plans to build apartment blocks on another part of the site in 2005attracted condemnation from international Jewish organizations and resulted in a motion being passed in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2008, condemning Lithuania for its "failure to protect the historic Jewish cemetery in Vilnius."

The new document signed by the Committee for Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe, the Lithuanian Jewish Community and the Vilnius Cultural Heritage Protection Department agreed the formerly disputed boundaries of the cemetery and grants it protected status.

Buildings already on the site will not be demolished.

Chairman of the Committee for Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe, Rabbi Elyakim Schlesinger, said the signing of the agreement was a "very important event."

The agreement coincides with the staging in Vilnius of an international congress of "Litvaks," as Lithuania's Jews are known.

From the 13th century onwards, Litvaks played a central role in the life of Vilnius, eventually accounting for nearly half of the population and earning Vilnius a reputation as the "Jerusalem of Lithuania" until the Nazi holocaust almost completely wiped them out.

On Monday Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite promised the country's remaining Jewish community that it would receive restitution for property seized during the Second World War.

Wednesday also marked a cause for celebration for Jews in neighboring Latvia, where Jews also suffered persecution under Nazi and Soviet regimes.

The only synagogue to survive in the capital, Riga, reopened after two years of renovation work costing 2.8 million dollars, with much of the money coming from the European Union.

President Valdis Zatlers took part in the opening ceremony and said he hoped the building would help to promote cross-cultural harmony.