The "surreptitious and unscientific" removal of hundreds of bodies from ancient Muslim graves in Jerusalem violates international and Israeli law, a group of archaeologists warned Friday.
Some 84 archaeologists and and professors of archaeology from universities and research centers around the world signed a letter appealing to Jerusalem's mayor, the Israeli Antiquities Authority and the Simon Wiesenthal Center to abandon plans to build a Museum of Tolerance on the historic Mamilla cemetery.
The cemetery is the burial ground of thousands of Muslim leaders, Sufi saints and Jerusalem families dating back to at least the 12th century. It is said to have been in use as early as the seventh century, when the companions of the Prophet Muhammad were reputedly buried.
In 1948, when Israel took control of the cemetery, the Israeli Religious Affairs Ministry recognized Mamilla "to be one of the most prominent Muslim cemeteries, where seventy thousand Muslim warriors of armies are interred along with many Muslim scholars. Israel will always know to protect and respect this site."
Pointing to the Simon Wiesenthal Center's work to preserve Jewish cemeteries around the world, the archeologists appealed to the center to show tolerance by respecting the dead and "ceasing construction on the burial grounds of generations of Jerusalem's Muslim population."
Hundreds of bodies have already been removed, and the archaeologists said pictures showed bones "haphazardly placed in cardboard boxes" revealing an "utter disregard for these human remains."
Meanwhile reports that disinterred remains were placed in a mass grave without any proper records suggested the Simon Wiesenthal Center intended "to conceal the hundreds of disinterred remains so as to continue with the Museum project," the letter said.
The archaeologists refer to an affidavit submitted to Israel's Supreme Court by the Israeli Antiquities Authority's chief excavator Gideon Suleimani in a case opposing construction of the Museum in 2008.
Suleimani directed a preliminary excavation of the graveyard in 2005, prior to Israeli authorities' approval of the museum.
He said he warned the Simon Wiesenthal Center that their chosen site was "a crowded cemetery, containing three of four layers of graves," but that the center put him under pressure "to complete the works quickly."
Consequently, no correct or complete record was established and "an archaeological crime" was committed as the valuable site was destroyed, Suleimani told the court.
He also said the IAA's claim that construction was approved on the site because of a lack of scientific data was "a factual and archaeological lie."
Suleimani said that after his excavations around 2,000 graves remained on the site, but the IAA reported that there was no evidence of "further skeletons."
The chief excavator said he was told by an official at the Israeli Ministry of Religious Affairs that if one Jewish grave was found, the excavations would be stopped immediately.
Noting the discrepancy, the archaeologists concluded: "Continued neglect to preserve this valuable archaeological and heritage site will only demonstrate the failure of Israeli authorities and the SWC to uphold the same ethical, religious and archaeological standards equally and without bias, for the burial sites of Jews and non-Jews alike."