Jews in Ethiopia begin hunger strike

Falash Mura strike to press Israeli gov't to take them to Jewish state.

Hundreds of Ethiopians who claim they were forced to convert from Judaism began a three-day hunger strike at a prayer house Tuesday to press the Israeli government to take them to the Jewish state. Between 1,000 and 1,800 people will pray and refuse food and drink for 72 hours, said Worku Nigussie, head of the Ethiopian Jewish Community Association. The Israeli government announced in January that it would admit the last 20,000 Ethiopians, known locally as Falash Mura, or exiles, into Israel by the end of 2007. According to the decision, the monthly immigration quota will be doubled from 300 to 600 starting in June. "We are asking the Israel government to keep its promise," Nigussie said. Israeli officials are working to complete the immigration procedure as soon as possible, said Yiftah Curiel, second secretary at the Israeli Embassy in Ethiopia. The Ethiopians' immigration has sparked heated argument in Israel for years. While Ethiopian Jews have strong ties to Judaism dating back more than 2,000 years, the Falash Mura say they were forced to convert to Christianity in the 19th century and are now embracing their original religion. Israel does not recognize them as Jewish, and they do not qualify for citizenship until they convert to Judaism under an Orthodox Jewish process that takes up to two years. Skeptics, including some in the Ethiopian immigrant community, charge that at least some of the 20,000 expecting to emigrate to Israel are using the Falash Mura label as a means of escaping their poverty-stricken country. But the Jewish Agency says the potential immigrants all qualify under Israeli government criteria. The agency estimated the actual number of Falash Mura still in Ethiopia stands at 14,000 to 17,000. About 20,000 already live in Israel. Members of the Falash Mura have been leaving their communities and moving into holding camps in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, since 1991. "Some members of my family have already gone to Israel. I have been waiting my turn to join them there, but I can't. I have been here in Addis Ababa for a year, living in a rented room, but I have run out of money and need a lasting solution for my problem," said protester Dasash Belihua, 29.