For the last 7 months G, a Jewish woman from the south of Israel who married a Muslim man and converted to Islam, has been trying in vain to make the Ministry of Religious Affairs give her a document confirming her conversion. G converted to Islam because the Jewish religious establishment in Israel does not allow an inter-religious marriage. A conversion document is a condition posed by the Interior Ministry in order to register either conversion or marriage.
These two government ministries, controlled by Shas party ministers, refuse to acknowledge the validity of certificates and rulings regarding a conversion from Judaism to Islam issued by the Muslim courts. Thus, the Interior Ministry conditions the acknowledgement of a marriage between a Jewish citizen who converted to Islam and married a Muslim, as well as their request for a family unification with their spouse, if the latter is not a citizen, on the receipt of a conversion certificate from the Ministry of Religious Affairs, or from the Rabbinate. Both refuse to produce it.
G's case is not unique, there are many like her. Applicants for a conversion certificate are made to suffer prolonged delays and masses of red tape; they are heavily pressured to renege their conversion. When such pressures fail, the two ministries just ignore the letter of the law - says the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) that has started preparing an appeal to the state's supreme court in the name of four citizens who were refused in this way.
Last May, G and her partner visited their local bureau of the Population Registry to register their marriage and report her conversion. G presented the clerk with a ruling from the Shara'aite court, confirming her conversion to Islam. The clerk dismissed this ruling, and demanded that G acquire a conversion certificate from a rabbinical court, or from the Ministry of Religious Affairs. When the couple visited the Ministry of Religious Affairs in Jerusalem, the senior official they met with asked to speak to the woman separately. In this conversation, ACRI documents show, the official tried to convince G to change her mind, and renege her conversion. The official lectured G about the virtues of Judaism compared to Islam.
G did not change her mind. She filed a conversion request and attached the required documents. The couple were told that the request will be examined by a special comity, whose members include a social worker and a psychiatrist, and whose job is to make sure that G was not forced to convert, or converted under the influence of a foreign element. The couple were also told that examination of G's request may take between 6-18 months, and that the comity alone can decide if she'll be granted a certificate of conversion - the condition imposed by the Interior Ministry for registering her conversion and marriage. In August, ACRI lawyer Bana Shagri-Badarna enquired with the Ministry of Religious Affairs and with the senior official about the delay in issuing the conversion certificate, but this did not advance G's case.
The couple needed the Interior Ministry registration to qualify for a home mortgage loan. They traveled to Bulgaria and remarried there in a civil ceremony. In October they applied again, this time directly to the Director of the Population Registry, Herzl Gadz'. They are still waiting for a response.
A Special Committy
S, a Jewish man, converted to Islam in a Shara'aite court in April. A week later, when he filed a request with the Population Registry to change his name and report his conversion, the clerk treated him rudely. S turned to that clerk's superior, and was told that his conversion would only be registered after he acquires a certificate from the Rabbinical Court in Jerusalem. S went to the Rabbinical Court in his locality and was sent to the Ministry of Religious Affairs in Jerusalem. There he met the same senior official that met G and her husband. He too was told that a special comity will examine his request, and that a social worker and a psychiatrist are among its members.
S responded by announcing that he converted to Islam of his own free will, and that directing him to the comity offends his dignity. But he was told that without the special comity's approval his conversion would not be acknowledged. Left without an alternative route, S applied to the comity.
Five different dates were set for a meeting with the comity and cancelled at the last moment. In August, after another talk to the senior official at the Ministry of Religious Affairs did not help, ACRI'S representative contacted the Head of the Communities department at the Ministry of Religious Affairs, attorney Yosi Hershler, asking him to issue a conversion certificate for S without S' reporting to the special comity. The senior clerk, in response, telephoned S and asked him to present her with a document of exemption from military service. Further calls and letters to Hershler were not replied to.
Shagri-Badarna also wrote to the Population Registry's bureau in S' locality and complained that S' religious freedom was harmed. She asked the Population Registry to accept S' conversion document issued in accordance with Israeli law by the Shara'aite court. The bureau again referred S to the Ministry of Religious Affairs. Seven months have passed since S first asked for his conversion to be registered, but his situation remains the same.
A, a 24 year old woman Jewish citizen of Israel converted to Islam last June, in the Shara'aite court in Jerusalem. She told Haaretz that she decided to convert to Islam not because she lived with a Muslim man, but because she has found her truth in Islam. "As an independent human it's my right to convert to Islam, and I owe no one an explanation," she said. In March, when she telephoned the Population Registry bureau in Jerusalem to ask what the registration procedure was, she was sent to the Ministry of Religious Affairs in Jerusalem. She had no idea of the humiliation and harassment she'd that awaited her, after which her "legitimate request - in a free country - to live as a Muslim," would be rejected.
On her first visit to the Ministry of Religious Affairs A submitted her request to the same senior official mentioned above. After waiting some time for a reply, A revisited the Ministry of Religious Affairs and was told she must report to a special comity. A visited the Ministry of Religious Affairs six times, to meet different individuals - people who presented themselves as a rabbi, a lawyer, a social worker, and a psychiatrist - each, in turn, interrogated her and tried talking her into reneging her conversion. On failing to convince her, one of the women told her "You are a traitor, betraying the Jewish people," and "You hate your own mother." She was further berated for lying in refusing to expose what they had discovered themselves, having investigated her life: that she's seeing a Muslim Arab.
In October, when an ACRI lawyer enquired with the Population Registry about A's case, she was told once more that A's request for conversion will not be handled before A presents a conversion certificate from the Ministry of Religious Affairs or from the Rabbinate - the same bodies that refuse to acknowledge a conversion certificate from the Shara'aite court. A request to have this in writing did not yield a response.
The case of K seems simpler, but for several years she has not been able to resolve it. K, a Jewish woman citizen of Israel, married an Egyptian citizen in September 1997. The two wanted to arrange the husband's Israeli citizenship at the Population Registry bureau in their locality, but the clerk at the bureau refused to accept their application. In October 2001, following ACRI's involvement, the application was resubmitted with the Egyptian marriage contract attached. K's husband was given a 6 months permit to stay and work in Israel, a permit that was later extended by three months. In K's ID, under "personal status," the Interior Ministry did not write "married," but "under examination." K was also required to present a ruling from an Israeli Shara'aite court about her marriage, and a conversion certificate from the Ministry of Religious Affairs - these were the conditions without which the couple's request to register their marriage would not be handled.
Last February K and her partner presented the Population Registry with a ruling from the Shara'aite court that confirms their marriage. K refused to present a conversion certificate from the Ministry of Religious Affairs, because she considers this requirement illegal and irrelevant for the registry of her marriage.
In mid June, when K and her partner asked the Population Registry bureau to extend the husband's work and stay permit, they were again required to present additional documents. Their request was only approved after two months. When the extension was granted, Interior Ministry clerks made it clear to the couple that in March, when the permit expires, it will not be extended again, nor will applications for a registration of the marriage and a permanent residency status be handled, unless they come up with a conversion certificate from the Ministry of Religious Affairs.
A Tougher Policy
These people, and others in a similar situation, are afraid to be exposed. They are anxious of social pressure, and they are fully aware of the Jewish religious organizations active in Israel, such as "Yad La'Ahim" (A Hand to The Brothers), who openly try to "salvage from assimilation." Some of these organizations apply various pressures to achieve their objective.
Two weeks ago, ACRI contacted the head of Supreme Court Petitions department at the Attorney General's office, Attorney Osnat Mandel, and presented to her the cases of G, S, A, and K. ACRI claims that the Interior Ministry and the Ministry of Religious Affairs "inflict severe harm on the freedom of religion and conscience, on the dignity and on the equality of citizens who chose to convert from Judaism to Islam." ACRI requested the Attorney General's office to order the two ministries to register conversions of religion and marriages based on rulings from Shara'aite courts, which are a public certificate just like a rabbinical court's certificate of conversion to Judaism. Otherwise, a heavy suspicion of discrimination on religious grounds and / or nationality will rise. The Attorney General's office is supposed to respond by the beginning of January.
The spokesperson for the Interior Ministry has told Haaretz that the Attorney General's office will reply to ACRI's request. The spokesperson for the Ministry of Religious Affairs also replied briefly: "The Ministry works in accordance with the Religious Community Order (conversion) and the procedure for this issue." The Ministry of Religious Affairs refused our invitation to lay out its policies about the conversion of Jews.
A neighborhood rabbi, who asked to remain anonymous, told Haaretz that he understands how the heads of the ministries must feel, and what makes them heap difficulties in the way of Jews who "ask to convert their religion and lose their soul. Those clerks perform a very great mitzvah," the Rabbi said. A veteran Shara'aite litigator has told Haaretz that until a few years ago he did not encounter great difficulties in registering conversions and marriages that were ruled on by the Shara'aite court. In his experience, he said, until about three years ago, a Jew that converted to Islam was given a hearing at the Ministry of Religious Affairs, or at a rabbinical court, to ascertain the decision was made out of their own free will, and in an attempt to dissuade them. In some cases they were required to present a document from the military. The Shara'aite litigator considers the toughening of policy to be influenced by the general atmosphere of intolerance currently prevalent in Israel.