The battle for religious freedom in Israel is heating up again and the stakes are now higher than ever. Israeli Christians barely had time to sigh in relief over the apparent demise of one "anti-missionary" bill before another far more punitive bill was introduced-this time with the support of Prime Minister Netanyahu and his cabinet. The bill calls for a three-year prison sentence or a fine of 50,000 shekels (U.S. $13,700) for anyone found guilty of "preaching with the intent of causing another person to change his religion," regardless of whether printed materials are used.
The "anti-missionary" bill introduced in the Knesset last January would have made publishing, possessing, or distributing "missionary materials" a crime, punishable by up to a year in prison. Although ultra-Orthodox members of Knesset, Israel's legislature, had introduced similar bills in the past, they were generally considered to have little or no chance of passing. But this bill was different: It was co-sponsored by Knesset member Nissim Zvili of the left-leaning Labor party and sailed through its first Knesset reading with a comfortable bipartisan majority.
Israeli Christians were relieved in June when Mr. Zvili formally withdrew his support for the bill in response to continued protests from around the world. But the celebrations were premature: Within three weeks Knesset member Raphael Pinchasi of the Orthodox Shas party introduced a new "anti-missionary" bill. To the shock and dismay of the bill's opponents, the entire cabinet-including Mr. Netanyahu-voted for the bill in its first reading.
Reaction was swift, both in Israel and abroad. Chuck Kopp, president of the United Council of Churches in Israel, called the prime minister's vote "absolutely contrary to his written commitment to Christian leaders that he would oppose such legislation." During the controversy over the earlier bill, Mr. Netanyahu repeatedly stressed that the bill did not have the support of his government, and stated that he would work against any such legislation. In the United States, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), who had worked against the previous bill and chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, reportedly contacted Mr. Netanyahu to express his disappointment over this latest development. The American Embassy in Tel Aviv refused formal comment, calling the bill "an internal Israeli matter." Compass Direct, Jerusalem