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BY MICHELE CHABIN
JERUSALEM—Dave Parsons is concerned. In March, the Jerusalem-based evangelical Christian believed that he and other Christians had persuaded the Israeli government to quash a controversial bill that would have made it illegal for people to disseminate written missionary materials.
Although that bill was withdrawn soon after Christian leaders, including representatives of the Catholic Church, pledged that their institutions—clergy or faithful—would not engage in missionary activity in Israel, a new, more comprehensive anti-missionary bill was introduced last month.
However, an official, who asked that his name not be published, said that the bill is now before a Knesset committee, and that “some bills stay in committee for 25 years.” He added that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is sensitive to the concerns being expressed by the Christian community. If passed in the Israeli Knesset, or parliament, the “Prohibition Against Preaching to Change Religion” law would impose a 50,000 shekel ($14,000) fine and a three-year prison term for anyone found guilty of “preaching with the intent of causing another person to change his religion.”
Introduced by Knesset Member Raphael Pinhasi of the religious Shas Party, the bill is designed to thwart the efforts of so-called Messianic Jews who believe that Jesus is the Messiah, and a small number of Christians (generally evangelicals) trying to win converts.
Like most other Christians in Israel, Parsons, an information officer for an evangelical umbrella organization called the International Christian Embassy, said that neither he nor his friends and colleagues are engaged in missionary work.
“Ours is a ministry of comfort, and that is our reason for being in Israel,” said Parsons, whose group provides assistance to new immigrants and other needy Israelis. “We understand why Jews are concerned about missionaries and inducements to convert, but we believe that such conduct is covered adequately by existing law.”
“I can say unequivocally that we don't missionize, period. When Israeli Jews come to us looking for material, we say ‘Sorry.’ We don't try to push our faith.”
Why, then, is he worried by the bill, which will require three Knesset readings before being passed?
“Our concern, first and foremost, is for the image and cause of Israel,” Parsons said. “We are also concerned that such legislation will impede both freedom of religion and speech. It's so sweeping that if some preacher appears on Israeli TV [via satellite or cable TV], he could be convicted in absentia. There is already a law that prohibits offering money to a potential convert. The new bill is simply too overreaching.”
Rabbi Yeshayahu, who works for the Orthodox anti-missionary organization Yad L'Achim, disagrees.
Noting that both Messianic Jews and Christians disseminate missionary materials through the mail, over the Internet, on street corners, and at universities, rock concerts, and even in the army, the rabbi insists that the bill is long overdue.
“Missionary activity in Israel has grown tremendously during the past few years and something needs to be done to stop it. There is an existing law, but it only covers instances where a person offers money to convert someone. The fact is, most missionaries don't work this way. They don't give out $100 bills and say ‘convert,’” he told the Register.
Instead, the rabbi noted, “young Israelis and new immigrants are told, ‘Come to a lecture, to one of our clubs or youth groups,’ and slowly, slowly, they are taught various things.”
Teenagers and young adults are targeted, he said, “because they tend to be inexperienced and gullible. New immigrants are targeted because they don't have much money. Many organizations offer help to new immigrants—and this is charity—but often the ultimate goal is conversion.”
Despite his contempt for missionaries, Rabbi Yeshayahu insisted that “the bill isn't anti-Christian. We have absolutely nothing against Christians or Christianity. We are simply against missionizing by people of any religion.”
While he has actively lobbied against the introduction of a new anti-missionary bill, Clarence Wagner Jr., director of the evangelical organization Bridges for Peace, said he understands Israelis' nearly universal fear of missionaries. Bridges for Peace, which, like the Christian Embassy, assists new immigrants and the poor, requires all of its volunteers to sign a document stating that they will not missionize while in Israel.
“Missionary activity is widely viewed in Israel as going beyond merely a religious practice,” Wagner recently wrote in his organization's newsletter. “It is seen, rather, as an attempted intrusion into the religious beliefs and practices of others. In the wake of the decimation of the Jewish people over the centuries, and particularly the Nazi Holocaust, the Jewish community—in Israel as elsewhere—has developed a deep sensitivity to attempts, by members of the very Church that, historically, has been the cause of so much of this anti-Jewish persecution, to draw yet more of its sons and daughters away from Judaism.
“Ill-conceived as the sweeping current legislative proposal may be, this historical background must also be taken into account,” Wagner wrote.
Although Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah of Jerusalem would not comment on the anti-missionary bill at this juncture, another Catholic leader agreed to discuss the matter on condition of anonymity.
Asked about the local Church's views on missionary activity in the Holy Land, the Franciscan clergyman said that “we are prepared to explain our faith but we don't force people to accept it. No one can oblige another person to believe in something he does not believe in. I am a Christian and a Catholic, and you can ask me what I believe in. You have the right to ask me, and I have the right to tell you. It is up to you to accept or not accept.”
Sometimes, he said, Muslims living in close proximity to Christians, as in Jerusalem or Bethlehem, become curious about Catholicism and begin to ask questions.
“If approached, we are pleased to provide answers. Still, we don't seek people out,” he said.
In Israel, as in Europe, he added, “it is generally Protestants, not Catholics, who missionize. In fact, there have been Protestants who have come to our Catholic Churches to seek converts.”
Although “many people regard us [Franciscans] as missionaries,” he said, in the Holy Land “we do not try to convert. Our role is to maintain Christian life in the Christian communities, and to take care of the holy sites.”
The cleric noted that he had not yet seen the latest anti-missionary law, and therefore had to withhold judgment.
“If this bill will respect the tenets of religious freedom, I suppose it will be accepted by religious authorities. If it doesn't respect these rights, it will be rejected,” he said.
While Christians are understandably concerned about the bill, so are a number of Jews. Yossi Alpher, director of the Israel-Middle East office of the American Jewish Committee, is one of several Jewish leaders currently lobbying against the bill.
Alpher's decision not to back the bill stems from two reasons, he said.
“First, most Christian groups, including evangelical groups, simply don't proselytize in Israel. They're here mainly to do good deeds. Second, in a democratic country like Israel, these are very serious human rights issues being discussed, and they are best not dealt with through legislation.”
Despite his efforts to defeat the bill's passage, Alpher stresses that missionizing remains a concern.
“There is a problem of proselytizing, especially by Messianic Jews, and frankly, I didn't move to Israel [from the United States] to run into people preaching Christianity. Having said that, in order to ensure individual freedom in Israel, this is a price we may have to pay.”
A native Israeli who defines himself as “a Jew who believes in Jesus,” Ari says that the proposed missionary bill “is an act of discrimination that must not be tolerated. Messianic Jews are being discriminated against and it's undemocratic.”
Indeed, if he has his way, standing on street corners or outside an immigrant absorption center with missionary pamphlets and Hebrew- or Russian-language New Testaments will continue to be legal.
Michele Chabin writes from Jerusalem.