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The Chief Rabbinate has banned Jewish participation in the Feast of the Tabernacles march in the capital, scheduled to take place next month, due to concern that some of the groups participating are involved in Christian missionary work, officials said Tuesday.
The annual event, which draws thousands of predominantly evangelical Christian supporters of Israel from around the world, is billed as the largest single tourism event of the year, pumping millions of dollars into the economy.
The march is the highlight of a week of events sponsored by Jerusalem's International Christian Embassy during Succot; usually attracting thousands of Israeli spectators.
The ban was issued last month by the Rabbinate's Committee for the Prevention of the Spread of Missionary Work in the Holy Land and was endorsed by both chief rabbis.
The committee wrote in its decision that Halacha forbids Jews to participate in any of the gatherings at the city's International Convention Center, as well as the annual march through the streets of Jerusalem.
"According to information we have, part of the organizations convening in the International Convention Center are active - among other things - in converting [Jewish] people away from our faith," the committee wrote.
"Those who fear for their souls should distance themselves... All those who will listen to us will dwell in safety," the ruling concludes.
The terse ruling never refers to Christians or the Christian Embassy by name, and even starts off by welcoming non-Jewish visitors to the Holy Land.
The head of the International Christian Embassy said Tuesday it was "disappointing" that rabbinic authorities were trying to discourage the Jewish public from participating in the march due to concerns over missionary activity.
"The International Christian Embassy has never conducted any missionary programs in Israel, and we instruct our Feast pilgrims against such activity during their stay here," International Christian Embassy executive director Rev. Malcolm Hedding said.
"The truth is that these Feast pilgrims are coming up to Jerusalem at Succot because the Bible invites them, and the members of the Rabbinate know this well," he said, adding that it was a violation of biblical edicts to reject the mass influx of Christian visitors during the holiday.
The strongly pro-Israel Christian Zionist organization has been honored by the Knesset and the Tourism Ministry for nearly three decades of contributions to Israel.
The Rabbinate ruling highlights a growing divide between the mainstream Israeli public, which has been very supportive of Israel's growing ties with evangelical Christians, and the Chief Rabbinate, which is run by haredim.
"Sadly, some in Israel are alarmed by a Christianity that is no
longer intimidating or hostile toward Jews," Hedding said.
"It is very severe that, without properly investigating the matter, certain rabbis have been misled, and are now causing a dangerous misunderstanding in Israel's relations with countries around the world," said MK Benny Elon, (National Union-National Religious Party) a rabbi who heads the Knesset Christian Allies Caucus, the lobby that works with Christian supporters of Israel.
Elon called on the Chief Rabbinate to study the issue well, and to correct the erroneous announcements that had been made in its name.
"The prophecy of Zacharia whereby all the nations will come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Succot holiday has been undertaken with great sensitivity and honor by the Christian Embassy for years now, and is not only one of the most important tourist events of the year, but also a very deep and significant event for Christians and Jews alike," Elon said.
The 28th annual event is expected to be attended by a record 7,000 Christians from nearly 100 countries.
Four months ago, the Rabbinate issued a similar ban on Jewish participation in a Christian women's conference in Jerusalem, also due to concerns that some of the organizations involved were active in missionary work.
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