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State Department charges Israel with persecuting Christian group

WASHINGTON, July 22 (JTA) — Israeli police have responded with “indifference” to complaints of death threats against Jehovah’s Witnesses, the U.S. State Department charged in a report released this week. “Members of Jehovah’s Witnesses have reported being followed, and have also reported death threats,” the State Department said in a report on religious persecution of Christians around the world. “Police have occasionally evinced indifference to complaints, sometimes alleging that members of Jehovah’s Witnesses proselytize without a permit (although there is no requirement or provision under Israeli law for such a permit.)” Israeli officials could not be reached for comment on the report. Congress had asked the State Department to report on worldwide persecution of Christians as part of its effort to address challenges to religious freedom abroad. The report is also part of a larger State Department effort to monitor religious persecution worldwide. The report criticized China for the most severe restrictions on Christian worshipers, including raiding worship services. Advocates of religious freedom hope that having the State Department’s imprimatur on charges of religious discrimination will aid them in their quest. The 86-page report also included a brief section on religious freedom in 78 countries. In the report, the State Department credited Israeli authorities for promising that they would “act to uphold the law if there was any further interference with anyone’s right to worship.” The report described a March 8, 1997 incident in which “a mob of over 250 haredim (ultra-conservative Orthodox Jews)” attacked a meeting hall of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Lod, “broke into the building, destroyed the interior, and burned religious literature, books and furnishings.” The report says the State Department had “expected active prosecution” of the perpetrators, rather than the warning that they received. The report also touches briefly on a bill being considered by the Knesset that would ban all forms of proselytizing.