Religious Services Ministry created

Yitzhak Cohen from Shas to head new ministry; government ministers vote for ministry 15-6.

yitzhak cohen 298 88 (photo credit: The Knesset)
yitzhak cohen 298 88
(photo credit: The Knesset)
The government on Sunday approved the transfer of authority over religious services in the country from the Prime Minister's Office to a new ministry that will physically remain part of the PMO and be called the Religious Services Ministry. The ministry will be headed by Shas's Yitzhak Cohen, who since May 2006 has been a minister-without-portfolio, responsible for the religious councils. During the cabinet meeting, where the proposal passed by a vote of 15 to six, with two abstentions, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was adamant that the decision did not constitute the re-establishment of the Religious Affairs Ministry, closed some four years ago. "There is no intention here to bring back the Religious Affairs Ministry," Olmert said. Senior officials in his office dismissed as "fabrications" reports that the move was taken to keep Shas in the coalition after the release of the Winograd Committee report on the Second Lebanon War, due to be released on January 30. Cabinet Secretary Ovad Yehezkel explained that when the Religious Affairs Ministry was disbanded, its various responsibilities were parceled out: responsibility for the Chief Rabbinate and for conversion courts went to the Prime Minister's Office; responsibility for rabbinical courts and for non-Jewish religious courts was transferred to the Justice Ministry; responsibility for yeshivot was transferred to the Education Ministry; responsibility for development of the country's holy sites went to the Tourism Ministry; and conversion classes were taken up by the Absorption Ministry. Two areas, religious councils and development of religious facilities, were placed under Cohen's purview. However, because Cohen is "only" a "minister-without-portfolio," Yehezkel said, he did not have the statutory power to sign off on numerous documents - including burial permits - that then had to be signed by Olmert. On Sunday, Yehezkel said, the government transferred to Cohen the authority to sign off on such documents. Olmert said that the move was purely of a "technical" nature to move final authority over these matters to Cohen. The six ministers who voted against the decision were Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Welfare Minister Isaac Herzog, Minister-without-portfolio Ami Ayalon, Tourism Minister Yitzhak Aharonovich, Strategic Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann. Meanwhile, a number of Knesset members slammed the decision to place the new ministry in Cohen's hands. "Shas will transform the religious councils into an authority for small businesses. The Shas party is only interested in nepotistic job opportunities," said MK Zevulen Orlev (NU-NRP). MK Arye Eldad (NU-NRP) added that Olmert was trying to buy Shas's ongoing participation in the coalition by giving them control of the ministry. Instead of standing by their political goals, Shas was willing to take the bribe and remain in a coalition that was willing to advance a left-wing agenda, said Eldad. Meretz MKs said that the establishment of the ministry would endanger the separation between church and state in Israel. "Israel is the only democracy in the entire world where the rules that govern marriage are based on religious code," said Meretz Chairman Yossi Beilin. "The decision to establish this ministry is a giant step backwards for the state. This will increase the power of political parties that are trying to force laws upon the secular population." MK Ran Cohen (Meretz) added that the ministry was Olmert's bribe to the religious parties, such as Shas.