Ruling due on Christian conference

Rabbis consider whether conference is involved in missionary activity.

Benny Elon 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Benny Elon 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
In a highly unusual move, the Chief Rabbinate will consider on Thursday whether a long-planned Christian women's conference in Jerusalem organized by the Knesset's Christian Allies Caucus violates Jewish law. The two day-conference, which is set to start on Sunday, has drawn the wrath of an Orthodox city councilwoman who is seeking to have it banned by the Rabbinate. The councilor, Mina Fenton of the National Religious Party, is a prominent anti-missionary activist who has long tried to have the cross-party parliamentary lobby dismantled for working with Christian supporters of Israel, something she views as an anathema. Last month, she teamed up with Lev Le'ahim, an anti-missionary group, and persuaded a three-member Rabbinate panel to declare that the conference was in violation of Jewish law due to allegations that groups taking part in the event were involved in Christian missionary activity. That decision, which was taken without the knowledge of the chief rabbis, will be reviewed in Thursday afternoon's meeting, after protests by the chairman of the Knesset's Christian Allies Caucus, MK Benny Elon (National Union-National Religious Party), who was not present at the earlier meeting, officials said. Elon, a modern Orthodox rabbi who has spearheaded Israel's relationship with the largely supportive Evangelical Christian world, has dismissed the claims presented at the first panel meeting as incorrect and will brief the Rabbinate about the planned conference. The conference, which is expected to be attended by a few hundred Christian women and is being carried out in cooperation with Evangelical organizations that work with the parliamentary lobby, plans to advocate the advancement of 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 dispute over the conference highlights the divisions in worldviews and theology over cooperation with the Evangelicals after centuries of Christian persecution and proselytizing of Jews. "I am in favor of honorable dialogue between the two sides, [but] the concern was over covert missionary activity," said Haifa Chief Rabbi She'ar Yeshuv Cohen, who has been involved in relations with the Vatican on behalf of the Rabbinate and is expected to attend Thursday's meeting. "If it emerges that the concern is false then there will be no problem with the conference," he said. The Christian Allies Caucus, which is made up of 12 MKs from seven parties, has come to epitomize Israel's new interest in garnering the support of the Christian world, especially the largely pro-Israel evangelical community. The caucus's guidelines unequivocally reject any alliances with groups or individuals that pursue the conversion of Jews to Christianity. "The question is, do we joyfully accept the phenomenon of millions of Christians supporters of Israel who love the Jewish people and our settlement in the Land of Israel, and who say their intention is not to convert us, or do we reject their outstretched hand and massive support?" said former NRP MK Shaul Yahalom, who was a member of the caucus when he was in the Knesset. But Fenton seized on an Internet advertisement for a separate four-day Christian conference under way in Jerusalem - ahead of the caucus's conference - which stated that Christian and Jewish women would study the Bible together, to reiterate her long-held views that the group, and other Christian Zionist organizations active in the Holy Land, are involved in missionary work. "These organizations have a worldwide missionary plan," Fenton said, unceremoniously dismissing their years of economic and political support for Israel as a "money Crusade." The four-day Bridges for Peace conference, which began Wednesday and will include sightseeing and lectures, is being attended by 30 Christian women. The president of Bridges for Peace in Israel expressed sadness over the brouhaha, and denied that her organization was involved in proselytizing in Israel. "I feel a real sadness over this knee-jerk reaction based on 2,000 years of bad history, when our whole goal is to make a better relationship between Christians and Jews," Rebecca J. Brimmer said. Brimmer said the ad's wording, which was drafted by the group's US office, was in error and said that claims about the group proselytizing in Israel were "not the character of the organization." The ad issue underscored the delicate balancing act Christian supporters of Israel face when dealing with the Jewish state and their fundamental belief that the return of the Jews to the Holy Land was foretold in the Scriptures and heralds the return of the messiah. Other Evangelical leaders slated to attend the woman's conference stressed that their support for Israel came with no strings attached. "The love we Evangelicals have for Israel is theologically unconditional," said Christine Darg of the UK-based Exploits Ministry.