Chief Rabbinate upholds ban on Christian conference

The Chief Rabbinate upheld a ban Thursday on Jewish participation in a Christian women's conference in Jerusalem next week that was organized by the Knesset's Christian Allies Caucus, due to concern that some of the organizations involved are active in missionary work, Rabbinate officials said. Although the Rabbinate's ruling is not expected to have any direct impact on the conference itself, Caucus officials were quick to blast the Rabbinate ruling. "The Caucus has gone to extreme lengths to verify that any organizations that we work with are not involved in missionary activity," said Caucus Director Josh Reinstein. "I can only conclude that the split decision was a mistake based on erroneous information," he said, calling the two organizations in question "among the greatest friends" Israel had. He said the conference would go ahead on Sunday as scheduled. The conference, which is expected to be attended by a few hundred Christian women, aims to improve the status of women worldwide on the basis of Judeo-Christian values, and to serve as a bridge between Jewish and Christian supporters of Israel. The scheduled speakers at the 'Empowering Women through Judeo-Christian Values' conference include Elon, MK Orit Noked (Labor) and two prominent American evangelical leaders, Kay Arthur and Jane Hansen. The decision by a committee of rabbis, which represents a heavy blow to the three-year-old parliamentary lobby, which works with Christian supporters of Israel, follows a long campaign by Jerusalem city councilwoman Mina Fenton (National Religious Party). Fenton is a prominent anti-missionary activist who has long tried to have the Christian Allies Caucus dismantled. Last month, she teamed up with the Lev Le'ahim anti-missionary group and persuaded a three-member Rabbinate subcommittee to rule that the woman's conference was in violation of Jewish law due to allegations that participating groups were involved in missionary activity. That decision was reaffirmed Thursday by two out of three members of a Chief Rabbinate committee over the objections of the chairman of the Caucus, MK Benny Elon (National Union-National Religious Party). Rabbi Simcha Kook of Rehovot and Rabbi Yitzhak Peretz of Ra'anana voted to confirm the ban, while Haifa Chief Rabbi She'ar Yishuv Cohen voted against the move, officials said. A compromise proposal put forward by Cohen whereby Elon would welcome the guests at the conference and speak against proselytizing Jews was rejected, officials said. The decision can be overturned by chief rabbis Shlomo Amar and Yona Metzger, officials said, although this was seen as unlikely. "I am very sorry about this decision, and I believe that the two rabbis were misled by incorrect information," Elon said. The Rabbinate committee did not fault the Caucus but singled out two Jerusalem-based evangelical groups - Bridges for Peace and the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem - for missionary work, the officials said. The two strongly pro-Israel groups, which work closely with the Caucus, have repeatedly denied such charges in the past. Both organizations said they would have no immediate comment on the ruling. "We're in no position to comment right now, since we were given no notice or access to this hearing and it involved matters of Jewish halachic law. We'll respond more fully once we have a better handle on the nature of this proceeding, the evidentiary standards used, and its possible impact on our ministry of comfort to the Jewish people," said International Christian Embassy spokesman David Parsons. "I am in favor of honorable dialogue between the two sides, [but] the concern was over covert missionary activity," Cohen said ahead of the ruling. Cohen declined comment on Thursday's decision.