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Evangelisn implosion

International | Conservative religious parties in Israel are driving a bill that would bar evangelism; the vote is a major test of the coalition government's strength; Christian groups brace for a big fight

Issue: "Question of Faith," April 5, 1997

This is the week Jerusalem cleans up. Kodachrome boxes, gum wrappers, and bottled water containers are what's left of the tourist procession from the Via Dolorosa to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

During Passion Week travel to the holy sites of Christendom did not noticeably abate even with terrorism on the rise, as Palestinians and Israelis continued armed clashes over Israel's plans to build a Jewish settlement in nearby East Jerusalem. The hordes of visitors noted well the steps of Christ as they navigated with metal detectors to trace the traditional path of his condemnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. What they did not see is how few local followers of Jesus there are among the landmarks.

Both Palestinian clergy and Christian worshipers from the nearby West Bank and other biblical sites are forbidden from traveling to Jerusalem to worship at the place where Jesus is believed to have been crucified. Israeli taxis weighed down with Western tourists crisscross the Old City, but Palestinian believers--their cars branded with special blue license plates--cannot leave the occupied areas even for the short excursion to Jerusalem.

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Israel's policies toward Palestinians fail to distinguish between Muslim and Christian: All face limited access to jobs, schools, places of worship, and right to travel.

Palestinian Christians have long been the unattended victims in the Jewish-Muslim strife that engulfs Jerusalem and the West Bank. From the Israeli perspective, they are lumped with Palestinian Muslims like those responsible for the suicide bombing two weeks ago that killed three Israelis in a Tel Aviv cafe. From the Palestinian point of view, they are afforded scant representation under the recently formed Palestinian Authority, headed by Yasser Arafat.

This is the month Jerusalem considers whether evangelism will continue legally. Christian groups are gearing up to fight a law likely to be passed by the Knesset, Israel's parliament, that would forbid "illegal possession" of literature in which there is "any form of effort to persuade another to change his religion." It would make it illegal "to hold, print, copy, distribute, or hand out" printed material that seeks religious conversion. And the law carries a penalty of one-year imprisonment. Cosponsored by members of the Torah Judaism Party and the Labor Party, the bill passed a preliminary reading in the full Knesset in February. It has been referred to a committee and will be resubmitted to the full Knesset to pass three more readings before becoming law.

Opponents of the legislation criticize its vagueness as well as its infringement of civil and religious liberties. They say it could be used to eliminate all discourse about Christian ideas in the birthplace of Christ. They point out that it compromises Israel's reputation as a lone democracy among the strict Arab nations of the Middle East.

"It threatens to place Israel squarely in the company of pariah nations," said Baruch Maoz, a Messianic Jew who is heading up opposition to the proposed law. "It would subject the consciences of the citizens of Israel to the tyranny of a religiously motivated censorship and rob them of an essential freedom recognized by all free countries in the world."

The bill is a direct result of undiscerning evangelistic tactics used by American televangelist Morris Cerullo. Last year he mailed to one million Israeli households a Christian tract, "The Peace." Jews upset with his approach very publicly set fire to the booklets outside the Knesset building in Tel Aviv. For them, "it was just the moment of opportunity," said Mr. Maoz, who said opposition to outside ministries has been growing. Messianic and Christian communities in Israel, who were not consulted about the Cerullo campaign, were not pleased with it, either, he said. Ironically, opponents of the legislation say, Israel could be cutting off its nose to spite its face by risking the ire of American evangelical groups, who have offered strong support for Israel's autonomy in the region.

Local congregations and Christian ministries have formed a Messianic Action Committee to campaign for the legislation's reversal. They hope civil liberties groups that are just now becoming interested in the bill will join the coalition opposing its passage. So far the MAC has organized a day of fasting and prayer held on March 23, with another one scheduled for April 14; contacted overseas organizations to exert international pressure on Knesset members; met with cosponsor Nissim Zvili of the Labor Party to voice opposition to the bill; and begun to build a legal team ready to fight the restrictions in court should the bill become law.

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