Representatives of Jewish communities recently held peaceful protests in front of Malta's embassies in Tel Aviv and Washington to urge the Maltese government to ensure there is no interference with human bones at the Jewish catacombs in Rabat.

The Prime Minister has also received at least three letters of concern from US senators and a congressman representing Jewish communities on the controversy surrounding the discovery of the bones.

In one of the letters, sent to Lawrence Gonzi in December, Congressman Edolphus Ed Towns from New York asked the government to take the "appropriate steps to prevent any further disturbances at the Rabat Jewish catacombs".

Two Senators also wrote to the Prime Minister in December about the same issue, requesting the excavated remains to be returned to the catacombs "as soon as possible".

The year-long dispute concerns the discovery of what are believed to be Jewish catacombs in Rabat, and the Jewish community's request for the place to be treated like a burial ground rather than an archaeological find.

The representative of the Jewish community in Malta, Lawrence Attard Bezzina, said: "I had warned government the issue was going to come to this".

The lobbying is led by representatives of the ultra-orthodox International Society for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries, Atra Kadisha, which is involved in intense campaigns all over the world to protect what it considers to be Jewish burial sites. The group were in Malta last February to discuss with Heritage Malta the best way forward.

A major bone of contention was Heritage Malta's insistence to document each and every bone found by measuring and photographing it. The Jewish community objected to this.

The Prime Minister's Office is following the controversy closely but has refrained from entering into the merits of the debate.

"The government is ensuring the matter is dealt with in accordance with Maltese law, established international archaeological standards and procedures as well as in respect to Jewish rites and traditions," a spokesman for the Prime Minister said when asked about the letters.

The Superintendence of Cultural Heritage and Heritage Malta, he added, was handling the matter.

However, Mr Attard Bezzina complained that the Jewish community had been ignored by the heritage authorities.

"We do not want to embarrass the government. We are not happy with this pressure especially at a time when the government has a recession to concentrate on. However, Jewish communities abroad have understood that on our own we have not been successful in convincing the heritage authorities to treat the issue in a sensitive way," he said, insisting the Jewish community was waiting for the government to come up with an agreeable solution. A similar appeal was made by Labour cultural heritage spokesman Owen Bonnici, who said the Rabat catacombs must be treated with "utmost respect" since they were more than simple burial site of a high historical value.

ksansone@timesofmalta.com