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Israeli lawmakers clear new anti-witnessing law

JERUSALEM (BP)–A bill proposing a three-year jail sentence or $13,700 fine for people who verbally witness about Jesus the Messiah cleared a first reading in the Israeli legislature May 20. But the bill, like other restrictions on free speech and religious freedom, faces an uphill battle against international opposition.
Among those voting in favor of the bill was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, though U.S. diplomatic sources said his vote was largely “a political exercise” to maintain affirmation from conservative Jews.
Still, the bill represents the fourth attempt to curtail free speech in religious matters in Israel during the past 21 years. A bill passed in 1977 banned persuading someone to change their religion for the broad and ambiguous motive of “financial gain.” Three more restrictive bills during the past two years have sought to drop the requirement to prove that motive.
Netanyahu has promised evangelical leaders inside and outside Israel that he will not allow the passage of any bill to restrict religious freedom. Israeli embassy sources say the proposed laws all have been “private member’s bills” that have no chance of passing.
A statement from the Messianic Action Committee, which has lobbied overseas leaders to oppose proposed restrictions, said the new bill will soon find its way to the top of the legislature’s agenda for another vote because of its strong Orthodox support. An earlier bill to restrict Christian activity — also passed in its first reading — awaits action after losing a key sponsor.
The stakes are higher than ever in Israel’s fight over religious freedom. A bill before the U.S. Congress proposes to use trade sanctions as punishment against nations who persecute people on the basis of faith. The White House is closely watching developments relating to the law, staying in touch with knowledgeable Americans in Israel.
“Prime Minister Netanyahu is well aware of the billions of dollars in U.S. aid he receives and the fact that the passage of a law such as this would erode his support in the U.S.,” said a U.S. State Department source.
Evangelicals are troubled, however, that in an Oct. 5, 1997, letter Netanyahu told his Jewish Orthodox minister for construction and housing he would support “an appropriate bill that will reflect the suitable balance between the preservation of the freedom of religion and of expression on the one hand, and the worthy war against missionary activity on the other.
“Not only do I not support missionary activity, but the opposite is true: I oppose any such activity,” his letter continued.
The prime minister is attempting to preserve his coalition and please as many voters as he can, the State Department source said. “There is a fair bit of sentiment that is against proselytizing.” Netanyahu needs the support of fundamentalists in the Knesset to maintain a majority for his coalition.
But even if Netanyahu does hold back extremists, evangelicals have another fear: Would a future leader be less sympathetic to evangelicals and allow passage of the law, if extremists can keep it alive long enough?
John Anthony, pastor of Jerusalem Baptist Church and a representative assigned to Israel for 25 years by the Southern Baptist International Mission Board, believes Jewish fundamentalists are working to wear down the opposition. The Messianic Action Committee, which solicited letters and faxes opposing the bill from throughout the world, is running out of money, he said.
Messianics — Jewish believers in Jesus as Messiah — are growing in number and strength, and becoming increasingly difficult to ignore.
“I’m asking that we pray there will continue to be religious freedom in the land of the Bible,” Anthony said. “Please ask Baptists to pray that these proposed laws will never pass — nor anything like them.”

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  • Marty Croll