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Tajikistan: Small Jewish Community Fighting To Save Its Synagogue

The last synagogue in the Tajik capital Dushanbe is scheduled for demolition as part of an urban-renewal project in the district where it is located. The Jewish community in Tajikistan is small, but its ties to the region stretch back centuries. Its members are trying to convince the government to hold off on the synagogue's destruction, at least until a replacement can be built.

Prague, 7 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The small Jewish community in the Tajik capital Dushanbe is upset over plans to tear down the city's only synagogue.

The plans are part of an urban-renewal project in the city's Ismoil Somoni district. As Mikhail Abdurakhmanov, the chief rabbi of Dushanbe, explained in an interview with RFE/RL's Tajik Service: "We received a letter from the district of Ismoil Somoni, in which they said the synagogue would be destroyed and a park built in its place. The synagogue has been there for 100 years and we want to keep this synagogue."

Despite their dwindling numbers, their roots run deep. Jews have been in Central Asia for thousands of years.
There are just 500 Jews in Dushanbe. Several thousand more are believed to be scattered throughout the rest of the country. But despite their dwindling numbers, their roots run deep. Jews have been in Central Asia for thousands of years. Many supporters of the Dushanbe Jewish community say the group has a historical right to keep its synagogue, or be given time to build a new one before the demolition project begins.

Supporters include Central Asia's Jewish emigre population. Rafael Nektalov is the editor of the New York-based Jewish emigre newspaper "The Bukharan Times" and the coordinator of the Bukharan Jewish Congress of the United States.

Nektalov said he learned of the planned demolition from friends and relatives still in Central Asia. "Information has come to us that they planned to tear down the synagogue in Tajikistan," he said. "The Tajik ambassador [to the United States] said it was located in an area next to a Russian military base and they were renovating that district, so it was possible they would tear down the synagogue."

The U.S. and Israeli embassies in Tajikistan have been urging local authorities to intervene in the controversy. Ghoib Golibov, the head of the government's religion commission, held out hope that a solution might be found. "We said we had some compassion for them and that it might be possible to keep the synagogue," he said. "They have a letter from the district and the district authority asking them to move the synagogue as soon as possible. It is possible a conflict could arise, and if there is no other solution, then the district should find a new place and build a new synagogue."

It may surprise some that native Jewish communities can still be found in mainly Muslim Central Asia. But the successive empires that ruled the region gave Jews wide berth to travel within their boundaries, and Jewish culture flourished for centuries.

The ancient Silk Road city of Bukhara in modern-day Uzbekistan remains the heart of the region's Jewish community, and is home to Central Asia's chief rabbi. Ismoil Somoni, the founder of the Samanid Dynasty who is revered as the father of the Tajik nation, is buried in Bukhara not far from Chashma Ayub, the Old Testament site where the Prophet Job is believed to have struck his staff on the ground and tapped into a life-giving spring.

But the number of Jews in Central Asia has declined sharply since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The exodus was especially large in Tajikistan, where the five-year civil war drove many people to flee the country.

The Tajik government acknowledges the deep roots of the country's Jewish community. Nektalov of "The Bukharan Times" said supporters of the Dushanbe synagogue may ultimately find a unexpected ally in the country's president, Imomali Rakhmonov.

"The president of Tajikistan, Imomali Rakhmonov, is one of the most interesting leaders in Central Asia because he has a good understanding of the Jewish Diaspora, particularly the Jewish Diaspora of Tajiks in America. Every time he comes to New York he always finds time to spend with us, and comes as our friend, as our brother, and says, 'We are always waiting for you to return to Tajikistan,'" Nektalov said.

Dushanbe later this year celebrates its 80th anniversary as the Tajik capital. Many representative of the Jewish emigre community are planning to return for the events -- and possibly aid in the fight to keep a synagogue standing in Dushanbe.

(Iskander Aliyev of RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report.)

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