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U.S. report on religious freedom offers criticism, praise for Israel

By Sharon Samber , Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 09/06/2000

WASHINGTON, Sept. 6 (JTA) - A new State Department report accuses Israel of discriminatory practices against non-Jewish groups.

The second annual report on international religious freedom, released Tuesday, lists Israel among countries whose governments "implemented laws or regulations that favor certain religions and place others at a disadvantage."

At the same time, the report - mandated by the International Religious Freedom Act passed by Congress in 1998 - praises the Jewish state for improvements with respect to religious freedom.

Most non-Jewish citizens in Israel are Arabs, and they are subject to various forms of discrimination, the report charges. The Israeli government does not provide Israeli Arabs, who make up 20 percent of the population, with the same quality of education, housing, employment opportunities and social services as Jews. Government spending and financial support are proportionally lower in predominantly non-Jewish areas than in Jewish areas.

But, the report notes, "it is not clear that whatever discrepancies exist in the treatment of various communities in Israeli society are based on religion per se."

Relations between different religious groups often are strained, both between Jews and non-Jews, as well as among the different branches of Judaism, the report says.

The report says that evangelical Christians, Jehovah's Witnesses and Reform and Conservative Jews suffered some incidents of harassment, threats and vandalism against their facilities, reportedly by fervently Orthodox Jewish groups. Members of these groups have complained in the past that the police have been slow to investigate such incidents.

Other "instances of ultra-Orthodox Jewish groups verbally or physically harassing Jewish citizens for ?immodest dress' or other violations of their interpretation of religious law are not uncommon," the report said.

The number of incidents increased from July 1999 through June 2000, the period covered by the report. But the report did not say by how much.

At the same time, the U.S. report says that there were improvements in religious freedom in Israel. It cites the March 2000 visit of the pope for contributing to increased religious tolerance in Israel.

In that same month, the High Court of Justice ruled that the government could neither allocate land on the basis of religion or nationality. The case involved the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency for Israel, whose bylaws prohibit the sale or lease of land to non-Jews - although the report incorrectly linked the case to the Jewish National Fund.

In June 2000, the Israeli government proposed a plan to redress spending for non-Jewish areas, which was substantially below that in predominantly Jewish areas. Also, harassment of Jehovah's Witnesses declined in 2000.

As part of the mandate to investigate religious freedoms worldwide, Robert Seiple, the U.S. ambassador for international religious freedom, visited Israel in December 1999 and met with government officials and religious leaders to discuss a number of religious freedom issues, including allegations of persecution of Christians, intrareligious conflicts in the Jewish community and the concerns of the Islamic community.

The State Department report, which covers 194 countries, also noted:

* The Iranian government continued to abuse the religious freedom of minority groups, including Jews. At the trial this year of 10 Jewish defendants, ultimately convicted and sentenced to prison terms ranging from 4 to 13 years on charges of spying, the Revolutionary Court "deprived the accused of almost all legitimate means of defense, and its conduct worsened societal attitudes toward the Jewish community."

* The number of Jews leaving Russia for economic reasons and fear of persecution more than doubled in 1999. Jews continue to encounter societal discrimination, and there are suggestions that there is a sustained pattern of intensified anti-Semitism.

In a section citing U.S. efforts to promote religious freedom, the report said the U.S. Embassy in Poland was working to facilitate the protection and return of former Jewish cemeteries throughout the country and supports ongoing efforts to establish an international foundation to oversee restitution of Jewish communal property.

((c) Jewish Telegraphic Agency Inc. The above information is available on a read-only basis and cannot be reproduced without permission from JTA.)

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