Israeli City's Christian Community Fights for Equal Burial Rights

Be'er Sheva reversed a 2001 decision to construct a cemetery for its Christian population, with the municipality saying that there are 'sufficient burial alternatives.

Be'er Sheva, the largest city in Israel's south, does not provide burial accommodations for its Christian population, Zikaron, a non-profit representing Christian burial rights in Israel, is claiming.

The NGO's struggle against city policy began after current mayor Rubik Danilovich reversed a 2001 decision by then mayor Yaakov Terner to allocate land to serve as the future site of a Christian cemetery in the city.

Christian cemetary - Hershkovitz - Feb  2012
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Speaking to Haaretz, Terner said that he "approved the land, near Tel Sheva, within the municipal jurisdiction of Be'er Sheva." Shortly after, however, "an Interior Ministry panel decided to move that tract of land to Omer."

"Following that ruling, I allocated the NGO another tract of land, near the alternative burial site Menucha Nechona and passed the decision in the Be'er Sheva council," the former mayor said.

However, Danilovich refuses to go ahead with that decision, with a city spokesperson saying that "the issue was discussed several times. In every one of those times the city claimed that there was no need to build another cemetery."

"Be'er Sheva currently provides a sufficient number of burial alternatives," the statement said.

However, it seems that Zikaron's fight for Christian burial rights in the southern city starts even earlier, with city officials and the NGO debating the size of Be'er Sheva's Christian community.

According to data culled by Zikaron, at least 20,000 Christians reside within the city's limits, while the municipality cites its own information, gathered during a 2008 census, according to which only 1,300 Christians live in Be'er Sheva.

Interior Ministry data, on the other hand, indicates that the city hosts a population of approximately 60,000 immigrants from the former USSR, an undetermined number of which are identified as having no religion.

However, according to Zikaron, a sizable portion of those immigrants are Christian, adding that over half of the city's former-Soviet population would be interested in a Christian burial if that option were to be made available.

In addition to the city's immigrant population, Be'er Sheva is home to 300 Christian Arab Israelis.

Stanislav Mishen, a Christian of Soviet extraction who immigrated to Israel 13 years ago, says that "there's a serious problem, there's nowhere to bury the Russian Christians," indicating that members of the city's Christian community are forced to use the services of the alternative burial site.

Speaking of the current use of Menucha Nechona, a burial site constructed for Jews who do not wish to follow religious burial rights, Zikaron's legal adviser Amnon Cohen said that "until 2004 there was a Christian cemetery in Be'er Sheva."

"But when that was filled, the alternative cemetery began accepting Christian and Muslim burials. We contacted Religious Services Minister Yaakov Margi, and he responded that it was forbidden to bury Christians in the alternative site, but that the city continued to  object" to the establishment of a Christian cemetary, Cohen added.