The battle for religious freedom in Israel is heating up again—and the stakes are higher. Israeli believers barely had time to sigh in relief over the apparent demise of one "antimissionary" bill (CT, May 18, 1998, p. 22) before another, far more punitive bill was introduced—this time with the initial support of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his cabinet.

The current round began in January 1997 when an antimissionary bill was introduced in the Knesset that would have made publishing, possessing, or distributing "missionary materials" a crime, punishable by up to a year in prison. Although similar bills had been introduced in the past by ultra-Orthodox members of the Knesset (MKS), they were generally considered to have little chance of passing. But this bill was different: it was cosponsored by mk Nissim Zvili of the Left-leaning Labor party and sailed through its first Knesset reading with a comfortable bipartisan majority.

Israeli believers breathed a sigh of relief when Zvili withdrew his support for the bill in response to continued protests from around the world. But the celebrations were premature: within three weeks, a new antimissionary bill was introduced by mk Raphael Pinchasi of the Orthodox Shas party. To the dismay of the bill's opponents, the entire cabinet—including Netanyahu—voted for the bill, which provides for a maximum three-year prison term or $13,800 fine for offenders, in its first reading.

Reaction has been swift, both in Israel and abroad. Chuck Kopp, president of the United Council of Churches in Israel, called Netanyahu's vote "absolutely contrary to his written commitment to Christian leaders that he would oppose such legislation." During the controversy over the earlier bill, Netanyahu stressed that it did not have the support of his government, and he would work against any such legislation.

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