Israeli leader halts bill against Christian proselytizing

·2 min read
FILE - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, right, arrive to attend a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem, Feb. 23, 2023. The ultranationalist member of Israel's ruling coalition says there's no such thing as a Palestinian people. Finance Minister Smotrich's remark Sunday, March 19, came within hours of efforts to calm tensions between Israel and the Palestinians over the country's contentious plan to overhaul the judiciary. (Ronen Zvulun/Pool Photo via AP, File) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday said he would prevent the passage of a proposal by a powerful ally in his governing coalition to punish Christian proselytizing with jail time.

The proposal had raised an uproar with evangelical Christians — one of Israel’s strongest and most influential supporters in the United States.

The bill was introduced in January by a pair of ultra-Orthodox Jewish lawmakers, including Moshe Gafni, who heads the parliament’s Finance Committee. It says soliciting someone to convert their faith should be punishable by one year in prison and solicitation to convert a minor would be punishable with a two-year sentence.

“Recently, the attempts of missionary groups, mainly Christians, to solicit conversion of religion have increased,” it said.

The bill was never advanced, but it drew widespread attention in the American evangelical world this week after All Israel News, an evangelical news site, reported on it.

On Wednesday, Netanyahu announced on Twitter: “We will not advance any law against the Christian community.”

Gafni said he had introduced the bill as a procedural matter, as he has done in the past, and there were no plans to advance it.

Evangelical Christians, particularly in the United States, are among the strongest backers of Israel, viewing it as the fulfillment of biblical prophecy, with some seeing it as the harbinger of a second coming of Jesus Christ and the end of days.

Israel has long welcomed evangelicals’ political and financial support, and it has largely shrugged off concerns about any hidden religious agenda. But most Jews view any effort to convert them to Christianity as deeply offensive, a legacy of centuries of persecution and forced conversion at the hands of Christian rulers. In part, because of those sensitivities, evangelical Christians rarely target Jews.

Joel Rosenberg, editor in chief of All Israel News, welcomed Netanyahu’s announcement, which comes at a time of domestic turmoil in Israel over his plan to overhaul the country's legal system and rising tensions with the Biden administration over West Bank settlement activities.

“Netanyahu is a longtime and proven friend to the global Christian community and his action today — amidst all the other issues on his plate — is further proof,” Rosenberg said.