Pagan altar found at Israel construction site
JERUSALEM — Israel on Thursday announced the discovery of a 2,000-year-old pagan altar at the site where plans for a new hospital wing have come under fire from ultra-Orthodox Jews who fear bones found there may be of Jews.
The find of what the Israel Antiquities Authority calls a "magnificent" altar gives a boost to the authorities at a time when ultra-orthodox Jews condemned the removal of bones from ancient graves at the site in the southern city of Ashkelon.
"The find further corroborates the assertion that this place is a pagan cemetery," the IAA said in a statement.
The altar is about 60 centimetres (24 inches) tall and is decorated with a bull's head from which dangle laurel wreaths. Such altars usually stood in Roman temples, the statement said.
It was discovered as the IAA was overseeing development of a hospital wing designed to withstand rockets fired from the nearby Gaza Strip by Palestinian militants.
Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Jews in black suits and wide-brimmed hats on Thursday staged the latest of several demonstrations against the project in their Jerusalem stronghold of Mea Shearim.
They marched to the spot where the bones found at the Ashkelon site are to be reburied, waving banners saying: "We ask forgiveness from the dead whose graves have been desecrated."
"The bones have been given to the (religious) undertaker to be buried in a Jewish cemetery, since there is a possibility they are Jewish," a spokesman for the religious affairs ministry told AFP.
The planned relocation has provoked the fury of the ultra-Orthodox community for whom the removal of Jewish remains is forbidden under religious law.
However, archaeologists say there are no ancient Jewish graves at the site.
Two months ago, the government decided to shelve its construction plans following huge pressure from the ultra-Orthodox, among them Deputy Health Minister Yaacov Litzman whose United Torah Judaism party holds five seats in parliament.
The decision, which would have meant relocating the new wing elsewhere at a cost to taxpayers of at least 100 million shekels (21 million euros, 26 million dollars), caused public fury.
The government was then forced into a U-turn and gave the go-ahead for construction at the contested site.