Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has shut down efforts to outlaw evangelism in the land where Christianity was born 2,000 years ago, following outrage and criticism by evangelical Christians around the world.
“We will not advance any law against the Christian community,” Mr. Netanyahu said Wednesday in a Twitter post in Hebrew and English.
Israel‘s parliament, called the Knesset, was considering a bill that would outlaw attempts to persuade people to consider changing their faith, including online outreach, mail and any other means. Convicted proselytizers would face up to two years in prison.
Evangelicals pushed back against the legislation after All Israel News, a website run by evangelical author Joel C. Rosenberg, broke the story on Sunday.
Critics said that legislation restricting free speech would distress evangelicals, one of Israel‘s largest non-Jewish support groups.
The legislation arrived as Mr. Netanyahu‘s coalition government proposed overhauling Israel‘s judiciary. That action has sparked massive demonstrations in Israel‘s streets and protests from American Jewish organizations.
Two Israeli lawmakers, both members of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, reintroduced the bill in the Knesset in January. One of them — Moshe Gafni, who chairs the Finance Committee — had regularly introduced such measures since 1999.
Mr. Gafni said the bill had been introduced as a pro forma measure and he had no plans to push for its passage. No action had been taken on the measure since it was introduced, the lawmaker said.
Mr. Rosenberg praised Mr. Netanyahu‘s action.
“It’s a victory for religious freedom, for human rights,” he told The Washington Times. “And with everything else on Prime Minister Netanyahu‘s plate, it’s pretty amazing that he decided that protecting the rights of Israeli Christians and Messianic Jews was a top priority.”
Of Israel‘s 9 million people, 74% are Jewish, 18% Muslim, 1.9% Christian, 1.6% Druze and 4.5% “other,” according to the CIA World Factbook. About 55,000 Messianic Jews retain a Jewish identity but affirm Jesus, known as Yeshua in Hebrew, as the Messiah.
Mr. Rosenberg, who also hosts a weekly news program on the TBN Christian network, said Israelis are exhibiting “a growing interest, even a hunger for information about Yeshua,” despite objections from the ultra-Orthodox community.
He said Hebrew-language videos of Jews who profess faith in Jesus have been viewed online more than 50 million times.
“Obviously, there’s not 50 million Hebrew speakers in the world, or even in Israel,” Mr. Rosenberg said. “So people are watching multiple videos.”
The legislation “went to the most sensitive issue between Christians and Jews,” he said.
That the prime minister stopped the measure in its tracks said something, he added.
“What’s impressive about Netanyahu and his Likud party, and I think the broader Knesset overall, is that they believe in democracy,” Mr. Rosenberg said. “They believe in human rights. Israel is a signatory to the Human Rights Convention of the U.N. And that means that you’re allowed to talk about unpopular ideas freely.”
• Mark A. Kellner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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