TEL AVIV, Israel (BP)–Christian witnessing could become a crime punishable by a year in jail if a bill now being considered by the Israeli government becomes law.
Christians in Israel are alarmed by the law’s vague wording, which they say could even be used to ban Bibles. And they say it could stifle the growth of Messianic Jews, those who have accepted Jesus Christ as the Messiah.
They have called for March 23, Palm Sunday, to be an international day of prayer and solidarity against the proposed law and asked for widespread opposition to it. The bill, S757-1996, would alter Israel’s penal code to prohibit “inducement for religious conversion” and sets a one-year jail term for “whoever possesses contrary to the law or prints or imports tracts or publishes things in which there is an inducement for religious conversion.”
Further, the law would authorize the government to confiscate “any tract or advertisement in which there is inducement to religious conversion.” An explanation accompanying the law states “The state of Israel, in the framework of the existing laws, is opposed to any missionary seduction to convert religion, and is even more severe regarding the seduction of minors to convert religion.”
“Missionary” means any individual who tries to persuade others to change their religious viewpoint, a translator said. The bill expands an “anti-bribery law” already on the books which makes it illegal to offer material gain to induce a person to change religions.
Messianic Jewish leaders in Israel say the law proposal has come in response to mass mailings of evangelistic booklets called “The Peace” to a million households in Israel by U.S. television evangelist Morris Cerullo late in 1996.
The mass mailings were roundly criticized in Israel and some copies were burned in front of the Knesset, or parliament building. “This is not the first time that (Cerullo) has advertised the Messiah in this way, and as usual, those who clean up after him are the Messianic Jews living here,” said one believer in Jerusalem.
“He produced a big backlash. He did not consult with anyone in Israel as far as I know,” said David Groseclose, a Southern Baptist worker based in Haifa who oversees Southern Baptist work in Israel.
Response to the Cerullo mailings was so negative, a believer said, that Orthodox Jewish leaders issued a new religious law warning postal workers not to distribute his booklets on pain of dismissal from their jobs. “The new Knesset bill now in committee is only the next logical response of a Jewish state under siege by maverick missionaries operating with ‘loose cannon’ theology,” the believer said.
The proposed law, however, could be readily applied to personal evangelism, and not just mass mailings, one observer said.
Messianic Jewish members now are said to number up to 6,000, meeting in some three dozen congregations across Israel. Growth has been consistent in recent years. Ironically, while some groups of devout Jews in Israel are vocal, many Israelis are secular in outlook and do not practice the faith of their fathers.
The new bill was approved in its first reading by a vote of 21 to 7 with one abstention and now must be approved in two more readings in Israel’s Knesset to become law. A poll of lawmakers indicated 78 of 120 will support the bill.
But opposition is mounting.
A delegation from the United Christian Council in Israel, representing most evangelical Christian groups in the country, met March 17 for an hour with Knesset member Nissim Zvili, secretary of the Labor Party, who co-sponsored the bill with Moshe Gafni of the Torah Judaism Party.
Zvili agreed the bill is poorly written and needs work. He told the delegation the law was not intended to outlaw the Bible or Christians, but agreed the law could be interpreted that way. But Zvili said he is definitely against mass efforts to convert people.
Zvili is considered a leading politician headed for higher offices in government, so his support of such a bill is considered disheartening for Christians in Israel, one worker said.
Despite assurances the bill is not a broadside against Christians in Israel, many Messianic believers are concerned it could be just that once passed.
“If made law, such legislation would make illegal almost every evangelical activity in Israel, and in essence, seriously affect the continued vitality and effectiveness of believers in Israel,” Yossi Ovadia and Garry Delinger, two Messianic Jewish leaders, warned in a letter to congregations and home groups across Israel.
They point out Israel has no Bill of Rights as does the United States, so legislation affecting basic human rights can be adapted more easily than in America. But they say Israel has signed the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which affirms “freedom of thought, conscience and religion.”
Zvili, on the other hand, expressed his own idea of democracy. Asked by a British journalist about the proposed law, he replied, “Of course we want a democracy. But even in a democracy you can’t have people changing their religion.”
Messianic leader Baruch Maoz called on Southern Baptists and other church groups in America to protest the proposed Israeli law in hopes of swaying Knesset members to vote against the bill.
“It is extremely important that as many telephone calls and letters of protest as possible are received at Israeli embassies and the office of the Israeli prime minister, and that these are received as soon as possible,” Maoz said.
“The Messianic Jews are speaking as citizens and friends who deeply love and support Israel,” said Groseclose. “They consider themselves good Jews and citizens of the state. Others of us who oppose this unjust bill also consider ourselves friends who seek the great good of Israel as a light to the nations.”