One by one, Jewish worshipers unfurl their white-and-blue prayer shawls and mutter a quick blessing to begin one of the last Sabbath services in the only remaining synagogue in this former Soviet republic.
The government has ordered the Jews out of the synagogue by the end of July so it can be demolished along with the surrounding neighborhood in the Tajik capital. The plain white building where Jews say they have worshiped for more than a century is to be replaced by a Palace of Nations complex that will serve as Tajik President Imamali Rakhmonov's office.
The city has offered several plots on the outskirts of Dushanbe for a new synagogue, but it refuses to compensate for the loss of the building, insisting that state funds cannot be used for religious institutions.
Members of the Jewish community say they lack money to rebuild and express worry that the synagogue's destruction could encourage anti-Semitism in this majority Muslim country. They argue they should be given land closer to the current house of worship, which stands in the city center behind metal gates decorated with Stars of David and menorahs.
"If they are taking away our building, they must give us for free something that can't be worse than the one we have now," said Rabbi Abba David Gurevitch, the Uzbekistan-based chief rabbi for Central Asia, who has led negotiations over the fate of the synagogue.
The Jews in this Central Asian nation are the last holdouts among thousands who emigrated in Soviet times, after the Soviet collapse and during the Tajik civil war in the 1990s. In 1989, more than 12,000 Jews lived in Dushanbe; now just 280 remain, of about 480 across the country. Only 14 men attended services on a recent Saturday morning.
Moving the synagogue from the city center would force the Orthodox Jewish worshipers to walk long distances from their homes in the traditional Jewish district. Orthodox Jews refrain from using transportation on the Sabbath.
The move would also complicate the Jewish community's aid programs. Many of the remaining Jews in Dushanbe are elderly and poor, and several dozen come to the synagogue's adjoining cafeteria daily for free kosher food while others have the meals delivered to their homes. A kosher butcher travels to Dushanbe each month from Bukhara to slaughter animals, and impoverished Jewish families receive donations of meat from the synagogue.
"We will still fight. It's been our synagogue for more than 100 years," said Grigory Talisveyber, 46, who recalled that the synagogue was packed for his bar mitzvah, the Jewish rite of passage to maturity.
Shamsuddin Nuriddinov, head of religious affairs in the Dushanbe mayor's office, noted the prominent role Jews have played in Tajik life but appeared unsympathetic to their plight and dismissed claims that the synagogue had stood for a century.
"It's a regular, simple one-story house," Nuriddinov said, also noting the sparse attendance at services. "It doesn't have any architectural value."
Dushanbe Rabbi Mikhail Abdurakhmonov couldn't disagree more. "For them it doesn't have the same meaning as it does for us," said Abdurakhmonov, whose uncle also served as rabbi at the synagogue. "For us it's a house of prayer, a holy place. . . . You can't simply transport this holiness."
He also expressed concern that the government's seeming indifference to the Jewish community's plight sent an anti-Semitic message. Instead, Abdurakhmonov suggested that the synagogue, which was nationalized in the 1950s, be incorporated into the new Palace of Nations as a symbol of Tajikistan's inclusiveness.
But Nuriddinov said even an old mosque would be destroyed and nothing could stand in the way of the city's modernization, envisioned under Soviet-era plans for rebuilding Dushanbe.
In Soviet times, religious buildings were regularly demolished as state policies of atheism accorded them no special value.