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http://www3.haaretz.co.il/eng/scripts/article.asp?mador=14&datee=09/21/00&id=93909


U.S. chides Israel for religious bias

By David Ratner, Ha'aretz Correspondent

Thursday, September 21, 2000



An annual report prepared by the U.S. State Department's Democracy, Human Rights and Labor division criticizes Israel for unfair treatment of Arabs, for vandalism and discrimination against Christian groups and non-Orthodox Jewish streams, and for sanctions against Muslim citizens who want to go to Mecca on hajj pilgrimages.

This second edition of the State Department report, entitled "2000 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom," was released two weeks ago. It comes in response to a demand made by U.S. Congressmen that the status of Christian groups around the globe be reviewed, to ascertain whether they suffer from discrimination or persecution. Larry Schwartz, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Israel, confirmed that the report's findings are relayed to governments in the countries reviewed by it.

The first section of the report's review of Israel provides a demographic breakdown of religious groups in the country. In the second section, which deals with government-sponsored restrictions of religious freedom, the report claims that the state of Israel provides lower quality services and opportunities in education, housing, employment and other spheres to non-Jewish citizens, who make up 20 percent of the population.

The report charges that government programs drafted to reduce gaps between the Jewish and Arab sectors have not been implemented. It details protests registered by Israeli Arab organizations against plans to "Judaize" the Galilee. It emphasizes that government allocations made through the Religious Affairs Ministry are highly uneven, with only 2 percent of this money going to the non-Jewish sector.

Striking one positive chord, this second section praises last March's Supreme Court ruling against Jewish Agency policies of restricting land sales to non-Jews.

The report's writers note their inability to determine whether discrimination against "non-Jews" in Israel stems from religious sources. They acknowledge that full freedom of religious worship is protected in the country.

As in last year's report, the 2000 survey deals with harassment and vandalism against various religious groups in Israel. Giving special emphasis to the plight of Jehovah's Witnesses, this year's report says that 120 complaints submitted to the police by members of this sect in 1998 and 1999 went unanswered. The report also notes that Reform and Conservative synagogues have been the targets of vandalism in Israel.

In a special passage relating to restrictions hampering hajj pilgrimages to Mecca, the report claims that age limits are enforced (allowing departure only of Muslim pilgrims older than 30), and that hajj pilgrims who leave for Syria without authorization are not allowed to return to Israel.

Asked by Ha'aretz to respond to these State Department findings about hajj restrictions, the Interior Ministry spokesman clarified that security officials set criteria for departures for Saudi Arabia. The ministry is not aware of cases in which return clearance was denied to pilgrims who left the country without authorization, he said.


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