Summarized by Joyce Feustel
Gospel a Hard Sell in Israel
New Orleans LA Times-Picayune pgA17 (Knight Ridder) 30Jan00 N6
By Nomi Morris: Knight Ridder Newspapers
JERUSALEM, ISRAEL -- At the turn of the millennium, when many Christians
around the world are looking to the Holy Land for inspiration, a small
group of ultra-Orthodox Jews has published a virulent booklet calling on
Jews to stop "enemy" Christians from bringing their "great Crusade" to
Jerusalem during the year 2000.
Most Israelis, knowing little about Christianity hold positive attitudes
toward Christians. However, the 68-page booklet, shows there are still
tensions between Christians and Jews concerning proselytizing.
Today, in the land where Christianity began 2,000 years ago, Christians
find they are discouraged from doing what the Bible says Jesus commanded
as he ascended into heaven: spreading the Gospel.
In Israel, there is a deep fear of missionary activity among a people
who remember Christian persecution, pogroms and inquisitions, as well as
fascist genocide, and who still feel their existence is threatened.
The Knesset, Israel's parliament, has tried banning missionary work but
the Draconian effort to bar the possession or dissemination of New
Testament literature collided with Israel's commitment to democracy and
freedom of speech.
Among the nearly 150,000 Christians from a host of denominations who
live here, the level of missionary activity in Israel -- and the
Palestinian territories -- is small and has been for most of the past
Almost 87 percent of Israelis have never encountered a Christian who
tried to convert them, according to a Gallup poll, which was
commissioned in December by the Chicago-based International Fellowship
of Christians and Jews. More than 60 percent of Israeli Jews do not know
any Christians, and fewer than 10 percent know an Israeli Jew who has
converted to Christianity.
"We're talking about an encounter that takes place against a backdrop of
2,000 years of hostility, forced conversion, persecution, blood libels
and fratricide," said Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder of the
International Fellowship. "Bringing the Gospel to the Jewish people came
at pain of death. It is still felt as a threat to Jews and Jewish
The Rev. Jerry Murphy-O'Connor, who teaches at the Dominican graduate
school Ecole Biblique, says the taboo against proselytizing in the Holy
Land is not a new phenomenon that arose from modern Jewish
sensitivities. It actually is codified in laws that have existed here
Both Israeli and Jordanian law recognize the Millet system, an
arrangement dating to Roman times that grants autonomy to each religious
group and that would be undermined if conversion were allowed.The Millet
system, which was in place throughout the Ottoman Empire, limited
missionary groups to running schools and hospitals.
"If someone came and asked to convert to Catholicism, I'd advise them to
go to America or Europe," Murphy-O'Connor said about the injunction
against conversion in the Holy Land.
One aspect of the legacy is that some of the more established Christian
churches in Israel ally themselves with local Jews in opposing
missionary activity because the proselytizing threatens their own
In the mid-1980s, when the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of
Latter-day Saints, the Mormons, got permission from the city of
Jerusalem to build a college on Mount Scopus, more Christians than Jews
initially opposed the plan. Its founders had to pledge they would not
engage in missionary activity, and students who attend the college must
sign a contract promising not to fulfill that aspect of their religious