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For week ended January 30, 2000 Posted 24 Feb 2001
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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 millennium.

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 continuity."

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 for centuries.

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 flocks.

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 duty.


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