The Conversion Agenda

"Freedom to convert" is counterproductive as a generalized doctrine. It fails to come to terms with the complex interrelationships between self and society that make the concept of individual choice meaningful. Hence, religious conversion undermines, and in extremes would dissolve, that individual autonomy and human freedom.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Lost Jewish Tribe Upset By Church Backed Conversion Freeze

November 13, 2005 3:15:05 PM IST

Members of a tribe in India's northeast who claim to be one of the biblical 10 lost tribes say they are upset over a freeze in their conversion to Judaism following a protest by the Indian government.

Many of the 6,000-strong Bnei Menashe tribe in Mizoram and Manipur, who profess they are the Biblical tribe, have applied to Tel Aviv seeking to migrate to Israel - the "Promised Land" - which they say is their right.

"We were all shattered after we got confirmation that the Indian government forced Israel to stop converting any more people to Judaism," said Peer Tlau, a practicing Jew in Mizoram's state capital Aizawl.

The Israeli foreign ministry earlier this week announced it would stop the conversions of the Bnei Menashe tribe in the wake of complaints from the Indian government.

"The Indian authorities, through official channels, told us they do not view positively initiated efforts at conversions to other religions," Israeli foreign ministry spokesman, Mark Regev, was quoted as saying.

"When the Indian government issues a complaint we take it seriously. At the moment there is a freeze on all such conversions taking place."

Shlomo Amar, Sephardic or oriental chief rabbi in Jerusalem, had announced in March that members of the Bnei Menashe tribe were descendants of ancient Israelites.

According to Israeli law, every Jew enjoys the "right of return" - or the right of abode in Israel. After the Bnei Menashe tribe was recognised as one of the 10 lost tribes by Jerusalem, a group of Israeli Rabbis in September visited Mizoram and converted the first batch of 218 Mizo tribal people to Judaism after they took a holy dip at a 'mikvah', or a ritual bath.

"We are waiting to get converted and then migrate to our Holy Land. Now the conversion ban could jeopardize all our dreams," Yonathan Ralte, a Mizo youth, said. "We are praying to god to turn our dreams of living in Israel into a reality."

Although recognised as Jews, the tribal people will have to undergo conversion rituals as they have not been following Judaism as practiced in Israel.

Some 800 people from Mizoram and Manipur have managed to migrate to Israel since 1994 when a private body, called the Amishav Association took up their case, despite fears among the Israeli authorities that the Indians were simply seeking a better life. The last batch of 71 tribal people left the northeast for Jerusalem in May 2003.

"There was tremendous pressure from the church and the Mizoram government on New Delhi to force Israel to ban the conversions," a community elder of the Bnei Menashe tribe said requesting anonymity.

Mizoram is a predominantly Christian state, while Hinduism is the dominant faith in Manipur. A majority of the Jews in both Mizoram and Manipur were Christian by birth and later started practicing Judaism.

"A vast majority of the people do not know Hebrew although many of them are now learning the language and following the religion like the one practiced in Israel," Zaitthangchungi, a local researcher and author of a book "Israel Mizo Identity", said.

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