Monday, February 23, 2009

Malta -- Controversy over Jewish Catacombs. Religion versus Archeology

Controversy is brewing in Malta over the ancient Jewish catacombs. According to the Times of Malta, it appears to center over who has control of the site, what the site should represent -- purely a religious burial ground, or also a site of important archeological significance -- and how to reconcile the two.

The Jewish catacombs in Rabat were at the centre of controversy in recent days after Heritage Malta called in police when a Jewish religious delegation allegedly entered the site without authorisation.

The Jewish community in Malta is demanding that the human bones found inside the catacombs are given a proper burial according to Jewish rites.

A Jewish delegation made up of at least 10 experts, Rabbis and archaeologists from Israel and the US was brought over to Malta by the Jewish community to carry out the burial.

Heritage Malta CEO Luciano Mulè Stagno confirmed that a Jewish delegation last week entered the site without authorisation, a claim denied by a representative of the Jewish community in Malta.

"We lodged a police report and for some time a policeman was also placed on guard outside the entrance," Dr Mulè Stagno said.

Lawrence Attard Bezzina, a representative for the Jewish community, denied that the delegation entered the site unlawfully..

[ . . . .]

"We are seeking an agreement that respects their requests but is also in line with Maltese legislation. The Jewish community are looking at the site purely in religious terms as a burial site. We concur with the idea but for us it is more than just that because it is an important archaeological site of unique value," Dr Mulè Stagno said.

The site, which is across the road from the entrance to St Paul's catacombs, has never been open to the public and is currently being restored by Heritage Malta with EU funds.

The Jewish catacombs form part of the larger St Paul's catacombs complex in Rabat and were discovered at the end of the 19th century. They date back to the late Roman period some 1,500 years ago and are unique since they are Jewish catacombs within a Christian complex.

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