• ISRAEL \ Nov 20, 2001
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    Orthodox Group Sues to Halt Church Center
Orthodox Group Sues to Halt Church Center

In Be'er Sheba's district court, Yad Le'Achim has filed an indictment alleging that Be'er Tovia city officials improperly issued a permit to the Grace and Truth Christian Congregation to build a church in a light industrial zone.

The court has allowed the construction to continue pending its ruling. After Yad Le'Achim started court action, Be'er Tovia officials attempted to revoke the permit, charging that the church had misled them.

The city officials have since withdrawn the charges, saying the church was honest, and that its license and plan meet zoning requirements.

The Knesset's Internal Affairs Committee has indefinitely postponed a meeting to discuss the church's construction program. Grace and Truth pastor Baruch Maoz had told the committee such a meeting would be inappropriate.

"We find it inconceivable that democratic Israel will not respect the right of assembly of a growing number of its populace," Maoz says. "The indictment has no legal grounds."

Because of the municipality's action, Maoz says, it is likely that the court will refuse to hear the case. Still, the church is planning for a possible appeal from Yad Le'Achim. If the building permit is invalidated, the church's options may include stopping construction, selling its property, or using it only for nonreligious purposes.

Yad Le'Achim has opposed other Christian activity in the past. In 1997, it advocated legislation to outlaw proselytism. But the legislation was defeated.

Grace and Truth's 400 members have outgrown rented quarters in nearby Rishon LeTsion. Be'er Tovia is south of Gedera and inland from the coastal city of Ashdod. The church, an independent Reformed congregation, is building a new conference center, offices, and a swimming pool. Church leaders hope to dedicate the facility by next July. Maoz says areas in Israel that are zoned for synagogues and other buildings are not made available to churches, especially if Israeli Jews are members.

Wes Taber, director of AMF International (formerly American Messianic Fellowship), says the court's actions have broad implications for churches in Israel. "Should [Yad Le'Achim] succeed," Taber says, "it will likely only encourage other municipalities to follow suit" and reject building permits for churches.