Israeli leader Netanyahu stops bill against Christian proselytising

The proposed legislation says soliciting someone to convert their faith should be punishable by one year in prison

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. AP
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday he would stop a proposal to punish Christian proselytising with a prison term.

The bill says soliciting someone to convert their faith should be punishable by one year in prison, while coaxing a minor to convert would be punishable with a two-year sentence.

It was introduced in January by a pair of ultra-Orthodox Jewish legislators, including Moshe Gafni, a powerful ally in Mr Netanyahu's governing coalition who heads the parliament’s Finance Committee.

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

The proposal raised uproar among evangelical Christians — one of Israel’s strongest and most influential supporters in the US.

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

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

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

Evangelical Christians, particularly in the US, are among the strongest backers of Israel, viewing it as the fulfilment 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 ignored 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 attempt to convert Jews.

Joel Rosenberg, editor in chief of All Israel News, welcomed Mr 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 — amid all the other issues on his plate — is further proof,” Mr Rosenberg said.

Updated: March 24, 2023, 5:40 AM