Friday, October 3, 2008

Justice Ministry asks CR Amar to stop converting non-Israelis

JPost reports:

Out of concern that Israel will be labeled a proselytizing nation, the Justice Ministry this week asked Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar to stop converting citizens of foreign countries. But Amar is proving reluctant to do so.

In a meeting on Sunday, attorney Harel Goldberg of the Consultation and Legislation Department in the Justice Ministry requested that Amar halt these conversions. Goldberg had sent a letter to Amar more than a month ago warning of the legal problems involved with the practice.

But an aide to Amar who deals with the conversions said that, together with the ministry, they still hoped to find a way to continue the practice.

Legal experts in the ministry and in the Attorney-General's Office have opposed drafting any regulations that would give a religious authority the power to convert citizens of foreign countries.

They argue that such legislation, unprecedented in other Western countries, would give the impression that Israel was actively encouraging the conversions of non-Israelis, even though the conversion candidates come of their own free will.

If the conversion is part of the naturalization process to become Israeli, then it is less problematic from a legal perspective. But Amar has presided over dozens of conversions of people who came here solely to be converted, and who then returned to their countries as Jews.

The case underlines the complexities created in Israel, where religion and citizenship are so closely related.

About five years ago Amar drafted a list of directives governing the way conversions are performed in Israel. At the behest of the Justice Ministry, these directives did not include rules regarding the conversion of foreign citizens who had no intention of becoming Israeli.

Nevertheless, Amar continued to perform these conversions at a rate of between 30 and 50 a year, with candidates coming from all over the world.

A senior administrator in the Conversion Authority who has been at odds with Amar for several years complained to the Justice Ministry that the directives did not grant Amar the power to perform these conversions.

The ministry issued a written request that Amar stop, but Amar's aides ignored the request. A few weeks ago, when a prospective convert from Hong Kong was scheduled to arrive for a conversion, the administrator complained again.

On Sunday, in the meeting with Goldberg, Amar was personally advised to stop.[...]

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