JERUSALEM, Israel – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded Wednesday to a chorus of concern from evangelical Christians in the U.S. and from believers in Israel related to a bill introduced by two ultra-Orthodox of members of Israel's Knesset would make it a criminal offense to persuade anyone to convert to another religion.
In a tweet, Netanyahu declared in Hebrew and in English, "We will not advance any law against the Christian community." The prime minister's announcement allayed fears that the bill, proposed by two members of the coalition government, would become law.
לא נקדם שום חוק נגד הקהילה הנוצרית.
We will not advance any law against the Christian community.
— Benjamin Netanyahu - בנימין נתניהו (@netanyahu) March 22, 2023
The proposed law states, "(Anyone) who persuades a person, directly, digitally, by direct mail, or online, to convert his religion, his sentence is one year imprisonment, and if the person was a minor, his sentence is two years imprisonment."
Knesset members Moshe Gafni and Yaakov Asher, from the United Torah Judaism Party (UTJ), submitted the legislation in January. On Wednesday, they stated, "The Mission bill was introduced as in every beginning of the Knesset and not promoted at this stage, so dealing with it now is not relevant."
Similar bills have been proposed for more than 20 years.
Israeli legal expert David Benjamin told CBN News the scope of this effort seemed extremely broad. "Wide as you can possibly get," Benjamin said. "In fact, Chris, I mean any, you know, just anything you say which might be in favor of a certain religion, right? Could be construed, I suppose, as being an attempt to solicit someone. Right? Where do you draw the line?
While the proposed law would apply to all religions, it specifically singled out Christians, stating: "In recent times, the attempts of missionary bodies, mainly Christian ones, to persuade people to convert have increased. Sometimes these attempts do not involve the promise of money or material favors, and therefore are not prohibited according to the existing law, but their many negative consequences, including mental damage, require the intervention of the legislator."
"Remember the whole issue of proselytization in Israel?", Benjamin asked. "There's always been a sensitive one, right? The Jewish state was set up to, to protect the Jewish people. Many Jewish people have been lost over the centuries, obviously to genocide. But also by assimilation, forced conversion, et cetera. So it's a very sensitive point."
Benjamin adds this effort would likely violate Israel's Declaration of Independence.
"I think that the fundamental premise of the law is problematic in itself. I don't think it'll be, it'll be unacceptable to outlaw. A person trying to persuade another person to adopt any idea, whether it be a religion or any kind of idea. You know, the free flow of ideas, freedom of thought, freedom of conscience, freedom of expression or, or fundamental pillars of any democracy."
Former U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback warned it could harm Israel.
"When you start to limit your religious freedom … in your nation, that's against the U.N. Charter of Human Rights that Israel and almost all of the rest of the world signed onto, too," Brownback remarked. "You're entitled to practice your faith or change your faith and I think this is dangerous for Israel, really, since they've been such a beacon of an open society in that region."
Some felt that given the composition of the current coalition government, it might be possible for the bill to become law, but Netanyahu, who's been a close friend of evangelical Christians for decades, would not support such a measure.
At a 2012 dedication of a windmill restored by Christians from Holland, he praised Christian Zionists saying, "I don't believe that the Jewish state and modern Zionism would have been possible without Christian Zionism. I think that the many Christian supporters of the birth of the Jewish State and the ingathering of the Jewish people in the 19th century made possible the rise of Jewish Zionism."
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