Israel rows back Judaism conversion reform

For Jewish citizens, all weddings and divorces in Israel are under the control of the ultra-Orthodox chief rabbinate (AFP Photo/Jack Guez)

Jerusalem (AFP) - Israeli ministers on Sunday struck down a bill that would have cancelled the monopoly the ultra-Orthodox chief rabbinate holds over conversions in the Jewish state.

A proposal approved by the cabinet in November but never passed by parliament stipulated that the chief rabbi of each Israeli city would be able to convene and chair a court on conversions to the Jewish faith, in addition to the four current state-recognised Orthodox bodies.

At present 364,000 Israelis of Jewish ancestry -- mostly immigrants from the former Soviet Union -- are not considered Jewish according to ultra-Orthodox laws and are defined as "religionless," meaning they cannot marry in Israel.

Israel does not allow civil marriages or interfaith weddings.

For Jewish citizens, all weddings and divorces in Israel are under the control of the ultra-Orthodox chief rabbinate.

By widening the pool of rabbis allowed to authorise conversions, the bill's sponsors hoped that it would perhaps increase flexibility and encourage "religionless" Israelis to convert to Judaism.

Sunday's decision, announced by the chief rabbinate in a statement, was a condition set down by the ultra-Orthodox party Shas for joining the coalition government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Another Shas demand approved Sunday by the cabinet was returning rabbinical courts to the jurisdiction of the religious affairs ministry, after 13 years during which they were part of the justice ministry.

Religious Affairs Minister David Azulai of Shas said he was "happy" the courts were "returning to their natural home" in his ministry, pledging in a statement to increase their efficiency.