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U.S. Department of State
Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 1999

Released by the Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Washington, DC, September 9, 1999


Section I. Freedom of Religion

Israel has no constitution; however, the law provides for freedom of worship, and the Government generally respects this right in practice.

The Government recognizes 5 religions, including 10 Christian groups. Each religion recognized by the Government has its own religious court system, which has considerable authority over issues of personal status. Government recognition is limited to religions present in the country before 1948.

Approximately 80 percent of citizens are Jewish (with a significant secular majority), while approximately 16 percent are Muslims, 2 percent are Christians, and 1.5 percent are Druze. The non-Jewish population is concentrated in the north, east-central, and southern parts of the country. The population includes small but growing numbers of adherents of nonrecognized evangelical Christian groups and members of other faiths, such as Jehovah's Witnesses.

The overwhelming majority of non-Jewish citizens are Arabs and they are subject to various forms of discrimination. It is not clear that whatever discrepancies exist in the treatment of various communities in Israeli society are based on religion per se. Israeli Arabs and other non-Jewish Israelis are, in fact, free to practice their religions.

The Government does not provide Israeli Arabs, who constitute 20 percent of the population, with the same quality of education, housing, employment opportunities, and social services as Jews. In addition, government spending and financial support are proportionally far lower in predominantly non-Jewish areas than in Jewish areas. According to the press, an Interior Ministry report released during 1998 notes that non-Jewish communities receive significantly less government financial support than their Jewish counterparts. Israeli-Arab organizations have challenged the Government's "Master Plan for the Northern Areas of Israel," which listed as priority goals increasing the Galilee's Jewish population and blocking the territorial contiguity of Arab villages and towns, on the grounds that it discriminates against Arab citizens.

The Government provides proportionally greater financial support to religious and civic institutions in the Jewish sector compared with those in the non-Jewish sector, i.e., Muslim, Christian, and Druze. For example, only 2 percent of the Ministry of Religious Affairs budget goes to the non-Jewish sector. The Ministry's 1998 budget actually reduced the percentage. The High Court of Justice heard a case in February 1997 alleging that this budgetary allocation constitutes discrimination. The Court refused to rule on the case in 1997 and suggested that the petitioners refile the case after the passage of the 1998 budget, which the petitioners did. After three hearings during 1998, the Court ruled that the budget allocation did in fact constitute "prima facie discrimination" but that the plaintiff's petition did not provide adequate information about the religious needs of the various communities. The Court refused to intervene in the budgetary process on the grounds that such action would invade the proper sphere of the legislature.

In civic areas where religion is a determining criterion, such as the religious courts and centers of education, non-Jewish institutions routinely receive less state support than their Jewish counterparts. The status of a number of Christian organizations with representation in Israel has heretofore been defined by a collection of ad hoc arrangements with various government agencies. Several of these organizations seek to negotiate with the Government in an attempt to formalize their status.

The Government has recognized Jewish holy places under the 1967 Protection of Holy Sites Law. The Government states that it also protects the holy sites of other faiths. The Government also states that it has provided funds for some holy sites of other faiths.

Missionaries are allowed to proselytize, although the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints voluntarily refrains from proselytizing under an agreement with the Government. A 1977 antiproselytizing law prohibits anyone from offering or receiving material benefits as an inducement to conversion; there have been no reports of its enforcement. Bills that would have further restricted proselytizing were introduced and passed their preliminary readings in 1997 and 1998 with the support of some government ministers; however, no further action was taken before the dissolution of the Knesset following the May 1999 elections. They are not expected to be enacted if reintroduced in the Knesset. Christian and other evangelical groups asserted that the draft bills were discriminatory and served to intimidate Christian groups.

Evangelical Christian and other religious groups also have complained that the police have been slow to investigate incidents of harassment, threats, and vandalism directed against their meetings, churches, and other facilities by two ultra-Orthodox Jewish groups, known as Yad L'achim and Lev L'achim.

The Government confers automatic citizenship and residence rights to Jewish immigrants, their families, and Jewish refugees under the Law of Return. This law does not apply to non-Jews or to persons of Jewish descent who have converted to another faith.

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Revised last: 11-09-1999