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Israel's Antimissionary Bill Raises Fears For Some Christians
PCUSA NEWS <email@example.com>
12 Jun 1998 20:09:19
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Israel's Antimissionary Bill Raises
Fears For Some Christians
by Ross Dunn
Ecumenical News International
JERUSALEM-An antimissionary bill before the Israeli parliament is causing
deep concern among some Christian groups in Israel who fear that, if
passed, it could prevent residents of Israel from possessing copies of the
The proposals contained in the bill - which is opposed by the Israeli
government - seek to extend bribery laws which since 1977 have made it
illegal to offer anyone "material inducement" to change their religion.
Under the new proposals, there would be prison sentences for all who
possess, print or reproduce, spread, import or publicize "things in which
there is an inducement to religious conversion." All such material would
The bill is sponsored by a member of the opposition Labor Party and a
member of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish religious group. But Israel's prime
minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, recently published an open letter in which he
stated: "The government strenuously objects to this bill, and will act to
ensure that it does not pass."
Some commentators believe that concern in some Orthodox Jewish circles
has been prompted by the growth of the Messianic Jewish movement which
proclaims Jesus as the Messiah, the fulfillment of the promises in the
Hebrew scriptures. Rather than joining existing churches, Messianic Jews
maintain their Jewish identity and worship in Messianic congregations.
According to figures published in the "Catholic Herald" in London, there
are about 200 Messianic congregations in the United States and 90 in
One of the bill's sponsors told the Israeli parliament, the Knesset,
last year that "a real and concerted missionary effort is under way in
Israel to cause the Jewish public to convert its religion." Recently, an
organization in the U.S. mailed into Israel thousands of books translated
into Hebrew aimed at converting Jews to Christianity.
However, mainstream Christian churches in the region are reasonably
confident that the proposals will never become law, and that in any case
their effects would not be as far-reaching as some evangelical groups fear.
One of the most vocal opponents of the bill is Charles H. Wagner Jr.,
international director of a Christian organization, Bridges for Peace, in
"As the leader of a Christian organization, I appreciate the
sensitivities of the Jewish community," he said. "After all, for the past
1,800 years, Christians have tried to force the conversion of Jews
throughout the Western world, even to the point of death, for example, in
the Crusades and the Inquisition."
But, he said, the new law would imprison a person simply for possessing
literature that could be seen as an inducement to religious conversion.
This would represent a threat to freedom of religion and conscience,
freedom of speech and individual rights.
"There is a question of who will define which literature is `an
inducement to religious conversion.' As a Christian, simply possessing a
New Testament for personal use at home could be technical violation of this
law if some fanatic group wanted to press the issue," he said.
This could also apply, for example, to a Jewish scholar at Jerusalem's
Hebrew University who was in possession of such books, he said.
Wagner said the missionary activity that had inspired the bill had
originated overseas and could not be stopped, adding that it was "simply
overkill for a problem that hardly exists in Israel."
But the sponsors of the bill - Nissim Zvili, of the left-wing
Opposition Labor Party, and Moshe Gafni, of the United Torah Judaism, an
ultraorthodox Jewish religious group - believe that the problem is not
Zvili agreed to back the proposal after the Labor Party was accused by
ultraorthodox Jews of cutting itself off from Jewish values. "To prove
them wrong," Zvili said, "I told them I would be willing to do something
He then helped to draft the legislation and last year explained his
actions in a speech to the Knesset. "Operating in Israel are organizations
that have taken it upon themselves to undermine the very foundations of our
society," he said. "It is estimated that over the past five years, 24,000
Jews have converted to Christianity."
The secretary of the (Roman Catholic) Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem,
Bazir Farouk, said he believed international pressure would stop passage
of the legislation. "It will be stopped," he said, adding that Roman
Catholics did not fear the bill would affect any of their activities.
Karl Ronecker of the Redeemer (Lutheran) Church in Jerusalem also
believes that the legislation will have little effect on the members of his
church. He said the Lutheran Church was opposed to sending out pamphlets
to Jewish households in a bid to convert them to Christianity.
"We have an understanding for the Jewish side after the Holocaust," he
said. "The Jews say, `Having robbed us of our lives, you have no right to
rob us of our faith.' We have sympathy for this view."
At the same time, he said, Israel was also a democracy and there needed
to be careful consideration of any such legislation. One needed to know if
the bill would jeopardize civil liberty and religious rights.
Ronecker said that he personally did not believe that the legislation
would stop people from possessing copies of the New Testament. But he
understood the concerns of fellow Christian groups that the bill should in
no way affect their religious freedom.
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