A group of religious Zionist rabbis are calling to privatize the marriage registration process to stop what they call the Chief Rabbinate's inefficient, unfriendly and overly stringent bureaucracy from turning off secular Israelis to religion. However, a senior member of the Chief Rabbinate said he and others would oppose any attempts to change the way marriage registration was performed. The rabbinic standoff pits religious Zionists against a more haredi spiritual leadership that has been gaining power within the Chief Rabbinate in recent decades. Tzohar Rabbis, a modern Orthodox rabbinical organization, warned Wednesday that if the religious marriage process were not made more user-friendly, pressure would mount to institute civil marriages in Israel for the first time in its 61-year history. "If, heaven forbid, there are civil marriages in Israel, God will know to blame petty religious functionaries who care only about their own jobs," said Tzohar chairman Rabbi David Stav in a telephone interview Wednesday, referring to the dozens of clerks currently employed at local rabbinates across the country who are responsible for helping couples register for marriage. "These people [at the local rabbinates] would sooner fight a holy organization working to bring Jews closer to their tradition than to help make it easier for Jews, secular and religious, to get married," he said. Tzohar wants to break the monopoly of local rabbis over marriage registration and open it up to competition. Currently a man and woman who want to marry must register with the rabbi of the city in which one of the two lives. Tzohar wants to change the directives so a couple would be able to register with any rabbi in the country who is recognized by the Chief Rabbinate. This would open the way for rabbis who belong to Tzohar, several of whom are chief rabbis of cities - such as Rabbi Ya'acov Ariel of Ramat Gan and Rabbi Gideon Perl of the Gush Etzion Region - to register couples who live outside their jurisdiction. Couples would fill out the paperwork at Tzohar's offices in Lod and not with clerks at one of the local religious councils. However, Rabbi Ratzon Arussi, chief rabbi of Kiryat Ono and chairman of the Chief Rabbinate's Marriage Committee, said the rabbinate opposed any attempts to privatize the marriage process. "Only local rabbis should be permitted to register couples because they are the best equipped to verify that both the man and woman are Jewish and that they are both single," said Arussi. "Opening it up to rabbis outside the city where the couple lives is dangerous. Couples are liable to be married without undergoing proper scrutiny." A spokesman for Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yona Metzger, who is responsible for marriage policy, refused to comment. According to Stav, who is chief rabbi of Shoham, in many municipalities across the country, especially in large cities such as Tel Aviv, couples planning to marry are forced to wait for long periods and to undergo arduous bureaucratic processes before they can be wed. In some cases, the situation is further exacerbated by idiosyncratic stringencies such as, for instance, the prohibition on marriage in the weeks after Pessah in accordance with certain customs. In other cases, clerks are unwilling to authorize unconventional weddings such as ones that take place in a forest. "The problem is that some clerks at the religious councils - not all, but too many - see what they do as nothing but a job like any other bureaucrat," said Stav. "We, on the other hand, see it as a sacred calling, an opportunity to bring secular Jews closer to their tradition." Another problem, said Stav, was that many city rabbis affiliated with haredi streams of Orthodoxy did not automatically recognize conversions performed by the National Conversion Authority, headed by religious Zionist Rabbi Haim Druckman. The National Conversion Authority is run under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate, and Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar has the final say on conversion policy. But many haredi city rabbis refuse to recognize its conversions because they claim that Druckman's religious Zionist agenda casts doubt on his rabbinic authority. As a result, dozens of converts who have attempted to register in cities such as Ashdod, Petah Tikva, Rehovot, Ma'aleh Adumim and Beersheba have been turned away by the local rabbis because they are not considered Jewish. Since the establishment of the State of Israel, all marriages in Israel are performed under the auspices of organized religious leadership, whether Jewish, Muslim or Christian. Jewish marriage is controlled by the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. The rationale behind giving the Chief Rabbinate a monopoly over marriages was to maintain Jewish unity by making sure that all Jews, whether secular or religious, would be able to marry one another. However, in recent years pressure has been building to break the Orthodox monopoly over marriages. The wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union that brought some one million new immigrants to Israel included about 300,000 who were not Jewish according to Halacha. For the first time in Israeli history, a significant segment of the Zionist population was not Jewish according to Orthodox criteria. These immigrants served in the army, participated in all aspects of society and defined themselves as Israelis, but could not marry. In addition, many secular Israelis who are Jewish according to Halacha nevertheless prefer not to marry in a religious ceremony and see the Orthodox monopoly over marriages as a form of religious coercion. Stav said he feared that unless Orthodox rabbis began to provide secular Israelis with better, more efficient religious services in a friendlier environment, pressure would build to amend legislation to enable civil marriages. "I see mixed marriages between Jews and non-Jews as a spiritual disaster," said Stav. "And I want to do everything in my power to stop it." Stav added that "in recent years, the Chief Rabbinate has deviated from its original mission of serving the entire Jewish nation, both secular and religious and making sure that Orthodoxy remains relevant. Tzohar is trying to return the Chief Rabbinate to that original mission."