Netanyahu's US Envangelical allies angered by Israel's plan to ban Christian proselytizing
US Evangelicals have urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to halt a law proposed by a party in the far-right governing coalition which seeks to ban Christian proselytization in the country.
The United Torah Judaism (UTJ) party - an ultra-Orthodox faction in the coalition government - is reportedly pushing for the bill that could see prison time for anyone seeking to convert others to their religious beliefs.
The law would evidently target Christian proselytization mentioning "attempts of missionary groups, mainly Christians, to solicit conversion of religion have increased", Haaretz reported.
It would also outlaw online or offline sharing of the New Testament and other elements of Christian teaching.
Most significantly, it threatens anyone who discusses "faith in Jesus" to an adult with one year in prison or two years for proselytizing to a minor.
The law puts Netanyahu in an awkward position as he seeks to hold together his government, which includes his right-wing Likud party as well as extreme-right religious-nationalist groups and ultra-Orthodox parties, but also has close ties to the Christian Evangelical movement in the US.
With Netanyahu under attack from Israel's allies in the US and Europe over the actions of members of his far-right government, the need for Evangelical support has probably never been more important.
"The bill could also draw sharp criticism from both Republicans and Democrats in Congress, in the executive branch, among US governors and others who love Israel and have always stood with the Jewish state, but would fiercely oppose efforts to silence followers of Jesus in the Holy Land," wrote Joel Rosenberg for All Israel News.
Christian Evangelicals - who are usually firm supporters of Israel - have also urged Netanyahu to block the law.
"Given Prime Minister Netanyahu’s long-standing friendship and alliance with Christians and solid commitment to religious freedom and free speech, I pray that he will make it clear soon that this disturbing bill will never become law on his watch," former president of the Southern Baptist Convention Jack Graham told Rosenberg.
Besides the pressure from American Evangelicals, the measure would also likely break Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
This states: "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance."
NBC Middle East correspondent Raf Sanchez wrote on Twitter: "Getting attention in US Evangelical circles: a bill by ultra-Orthodox members of Netanyahu's govt to ban Christian missionaries from evangelizing in Israel. Unlikely it becomes law, but it's rattling some staunch pro-Israel Evangelicals."
Amid the backlash, Moshe Gafni, one of the two UTJ MKs who proposed the bill, agreed it is unlikely to become law.
"The bill was [brought up] with the current Knesset more than four months ago, and there is no plan for it to move forward... dealing with it now is irrelevant," he said in a statement according to The Jerusalem Post.
The bill comes amid increasingly tense relations between the US and Israel since the establishment of Netanyahu's hard-right government in December.
The US earlier this month voiced alarm about Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich's call to "wipe out" the Palestinian village of Hawara - targeted by settlers in a pogrom just days earlier - and more recently protested a law that could see four key settlements in the West Bank reoccupied.
Christian Palestinians meanwhile remain subject to the harrowing conditions of Israeli occupation with their places of worship frequently targeted by Jewish extremists and settlers.