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Magen Abraham: Lebanon's Oldest Synagogue Rebuilding Begins

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BEIRUT — Laborers have torn down the disintegrating roof, cleared the debris and erected scaffolding, showing Wednesday that the long delayed renovation of Lebanon's oldest and most important synagogue has finally begun.

Beirut's imposing Magen Abraham synagogue was badly damaged during Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war and remained devastated long after the rest of the downtown was rebuilt with new shopping arcades and gleaming skyscrapers rising from tree-lined streets.

Solidere, the giant company that has taken the lead in flattening and then rebuilding much of downtown has said it is up to each religious sect to restore their own places of worship – a tall order for a dwindling community of only 200 Jews.

On Wednesday, about a dozen laborers worked on the building, stockpiling wood and clearing debris, stones and weeds.

"The project might take a year or so to complete depending how much money we can collect," an official of the Lebanese Jewish Community Council told The Associated Press Wednesday.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said the renovation, which began about 10 days ago, is estimated to cost between $1 million and $1.5 million.

Renovation was scheduled to begin in 2006, but work was put off due to turmoil in the country following the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah summer war. It was delayed further by the global financial crisis last year as potential Jewish donors overseas, who were to provide the bulk of the funds, decided to wait.

The Jewish official said the council, which cares for the remnants of Lebanon's Jewish community, does not yet have the necessary funds to complete the renovation.

"So far, no donations have come from Jewish donors overseas," he said. He added that the money to begin restoring the synagogue's roof came from the Jewish Council's own budget, while declining to elaborate on the exact amount.

Security guards from nearby government buildings banned reporters and photographers from getting closer to the site and the workers doing the renovation refused to talk.

The synagogue, like the country's once-thriving Jewish community, fell prey to the devastating civil war. Even after the fighting ended, the remaining Jews from the once 22,000-strong community did not have the money to repair or even maintain the building.

The synagogue, which was built in 1926 in Beirut's main Jewish neighborhood of Wadi Abou Jmil, sat on the battle lines dividing the city during the civil war, falling on the Muslim side of the Lebanese capital's infamous green line.

Until the renovation began, the structure was filled with empty bottles, broken glass and shattered bricks from the roof. Wide cracks covered the walls and stairways leading to the second floor.

Jews did not take part in Lebanon's civil war, but the violence forced most to emigrate. Eleven Jews were kidnapped and apparently killed during the hostage-taking spree of the 1980s that targeted foreigners and Lebanese alike in Beirut. The bodies of only four were recovered, bearing the marks of torture. The remaining Jews have generally kept a low profile.

The long-delayed restoration comes amid a rare consensus among the country's fractious factions as even the staunchly anti-Israeli militant Hezbollah organization believes the synagogue should be rebuilt.

In addition to Magen Abraham, there are two other synagogues in mountain towns east of Beirut that were damaged by the fighting and then closed.

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