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Spiritual leaders of the nation's poor, culture-shocked and embattled Ethiopian community opened another front of divisiveness Wednesday, calling to excommunicate members of their community who engage in Christian missionary activity.
The Jewish Ethiopian community plans to compose a blacklist of known missionaries who will be ostracized.
"We know who they are," said Itzhak Zagai, Chief Rabbi of Rehovot's Ethiopian community. "The worst punishment imaginable for an Ethiopian is excommunication, because we are all so interdependent."
Ethiopians who appear on the list will be unable to marry inside the community.
Christian Ethiopian proselytizing among Jewish Ethiopians is not a new phenomenon, said Kes Avihu Azariya, Chairman of the Council of Kohanim, an organization of traditional Ethiopian spiritual leaders. But missionary activity has spread, especially since the immigration of the Falashmura, Ethiopian immigrants with Christian roots.
"Today, missionaries are active all over the country from Jerusalem to Netanya, to Nazareth Ilit, to Haifa to Kiryat Malachi," said Azariya.
Rehovot has become one of the largest centers for missionary activity with a center located in the heart of the city's predominantly Ethiopian Kiryat Moshe neighborhood.
In a letter to Rehovot's Mayor Shuki Forer, Zagai warned of violent Jewish Ethiopian reactions to the missionaries if their activities are not stopped.
"People here are threatening to resort to extreme measures, such as blowing up the missionary headquarters with gas tanks," said Zagai.
Kes Samai Elias, head of the Ethiopian community in Rishon Lezion, said that a lack of leadership made the Ethiopian community particularly ripe for missionary activities.
Ethiopian religious leadership is split between two camps. One supports full integration into normative Jewish practive, which is headed by Rabbi Yosef Hadana, who was appointed by the Chief Rabbinate to serve as Chief Ethiopian Rabbi.
The second camp insists on maintaining distinctive Ethiopian traditions and spiritual customs, which is led by an elderly group of spiritual leaders known as Kesim. However, these leaders are not recognized as religious authorities by the Chief Rabbinate.
Missionaries mix Ethiopian superstitions and rituals with their messages about Jesus, said Elias.
"Ethiopians have a simple understanding of Judaism; therefore they are easily persuaded to incorporate Jesus. One man interviewed Wednesday on the Amhari radio station, defined himself as a Jew who believes in Jesus. He saw no contradiction.
"They also give their prospective converts money and presents as a way of coercing them.
Ianao Freda-Sanabetu, a freelance Ethiopian journalist who first wrote about the missionary problem in Rehovot, said that the Falashmura immigrants are ruining the Ethiopian community.
"Any politician who dares oppose bringing them here is accused of racism against blacks," said Freda-Sanabetu who works for Ha'aretz,, Channel 1 and Makor Rishon.
"Many come with Christian beliefs and missionary aspirations."
None of the missionaries could be reached. However, Ethiopian leaders suspect they receive financial support from European and American missionaries active in Israel.