Lithuania Jewish Community closes Vilnius synagogue over threats

The Lithuanian Jewish Community said it was temporarily closing the Choral Synagogue in Vilnius, pictured here in 2018 (AFP Photo/Petras Malukas)

Vilnius (AFP) - Jewish leaders in Lithuania announced Tuesday they were temporarily closing the Vilnius Synagogue and the community's headquarters due to threats, citing an "atmosphere of rising tension".

The move comes amid a highly-charged public debate over commemorations to Lithuanian wartime officials, who the Lithuanian Jewish Community (LJC) claims were involved in the Holocaust.

In recent days authorities have acted to remove a plaque to one of the men and rename a street named after another -- sparking a backlash which the LJC claims has been stoked by some politicians who have called for protests.

"The Lithuanian Jewish Community has received threatening telephone calls and letters in recent days," the community said in a statement on their website.

"In this atmosphere of rising tension and incitement to more tension, neither the LJC nor the synagogue in Vilnius have the means to insure the safety of visitors, including Holocaust survivors and their families."

The LJC also asked authorities for additional protection of a Jewish cemetary, located 20 kilometres (12 miles) from the capital Vilnius.

Lithuanian Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis on Tuesday urged the security services "to take immediate action to prevent possible elements of ethnic hatred and, if necessary, use other means provided by law."

Before World War II, the 60,000-strong Jewish community accounted for around one-third of Vilnius's residents, but most of them perished under Nazi Germany's 1941-1944 occupation.

Lithuania's tiny Jewish community now numbers around 3,000 people out of a total population of 2.9 million.

Vilnius officials removed a controversial memorial plaque to Jonas Noreika on July 27 from the library building in the city centre.

The move was ordered by Vilnius mayor Remigijus Simasius who said it was done because of Noreika's approval of the Nazi administration's decision to establish a Jewish ghetto and seize their property.

It came after the Vilnius City Council on July 24th decided to rename a small street in the city central named after Kazys Skirpa, a 20th century Lithuanian diplomat and military officer, due to his declared anti-Semitic views.

Both decisions were hailed by the LJC.

But critics of these decisions said Noreika and Skirpa did not collaborate with the Nazi regime and were devoted fighters for Lithuanian independence.