Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Mormon plan for a Brigham Young University site in Jerusalem irks some Israelis

Ultra-orthodox Jews are trying to stop Brigham Young University from building a center that they charge will house Mormon missionaries dedicated to converting Jews. The tiny group Yad Lachim (``Hand to the Brothers'') took its case to the Israeli parliament this week. Yad Lachim asked the Interior Committee to halt work at the Mount Scopus site of BYU's Center for Near East Studies. (BYU in Utah is owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, also known as the Mormon church.)

The committee declined to stop the building, but asked BYU officials to testify next month on their project.

About these ads

David Galbraith, director of the Near East Center, says he has received no formal invitation yet, but welcomed the opportunity to address the committee.

``I'm quite anxious to speak to them and see if I can allay some of their fears,'' Dr. Galbraith says. ``We've been here 17 years and there's not been a single incident of missionary work.''

Prof. Moshe Dann, a spokesman for Yad Lachim, says the group fights missionary and cult activity of any kind in Israel. ``After the Holocaust, the 6 million lost, after our history of decimation, it is a serious thing'' to lose a Jew through conversion to another religion, he says.

The group has battled against the rebuilding of a Baptist Church in Jerusalem that was destroyed by fire believed to have been caused by arson in October 1982. It keeps tabs on the activities of the Church of Scientology and Transcendental Meditationists, according to Dann.

Five years ago, the ultra-orthodox Jews succeeded in having a law passed that forbids the giving of gifts to encourage people to convert to another religion. No one has ever been prosecuted for violating this law.

Yad Lachim's cause c'el`ebre now, however, is its campaign to halt construction of a multimillion-dollar branch of BYU in east Jerusalem. The center is being built on the slopes of Mount Scopus, just below Hebrew University and across from the Mount of Olives, a site holy to Christians and Jews.

Dann says his group believes the Mormons have kept a low profile while waiting to establish a permanent center in Israel. The parliament committee's decision is a victory for his group, he says.

About these ads

A spokesman for Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek's office says, however, that there is ``no chance at all'' that the project will be stopped.

Mayor Kollek enthusiastically supports the project. He has lent his clout to cutting through red tape and winning approval for BYU to lease more than six acres of choice land with a panoramic view of the Old City.

Yad Lachim has accused Kollek of ``selling out'' to the Mormons after the church donated $1 million to the city's Jerusalem Fund. The money was used to build a park on the Mount of Olives that was named after Orson Hayde, a Mormon elder who came to Jerusalem in the 19th century.

The Mormons, Kollek's office maintains, have promised not to proselytize Jews. Elders of the church have traveled to Israel to assure officials here that they want only to build a permanent center where BYU students will live and study for a semester or a year.

``But there is a lot of sensitivity in Israel to this question of changing one's religion,'' acknowledges Naomi Teasdale, Kollek's adviser on Christian affairs.

``It is a very old Jewish fear because in the past Jews have been compelled to change their religion under threat of death.''

Both secular and religious Jews in Israel are wary of the intentions of evangelical Christians, Teasdale says.

Some fundamentalist Christians, however, including the Rev. Jerry Falwell, are strong defenders of Israel. Many of them view the reestablishment of the Jewish state as bringing the world a step closer to a second coming of Christ.

Galbraith says the Mormons, too, ``see in the return this gathering of the Jewish people, the prophecy in the process of being fulfilled.''

The Near East Center has for the last seven years been housed in a Jerusalem kibbutz that is now inadequate, he says.

``There is a big interest in Israel among the Latter Day Saints,'' Galbraith says. ``They are coming in increasing numbers here over the years . . . some Latter Day Saints would describe themselves as Zionists in a spiritual sense.''

The new center, Galbraith says, will cost more than $15 million and is expected to be completed in 1987. It will house up to 200 students.

Yad Lachim has said it has ``a mole'' within the Mormon community here who has provided it with documents that they say ``prove'' the Mormons are determined to convert Jews both in Israel and the United States.

Yad Lachim provided reporters with copies of the ``Missionary Training Manual For Use in the Jewish Proselyting Program.'' The document, published by the Church of Latter Day Saints, provides young Mormon missionaries with guidelines on the best way to approach Jews.

``. . . .As a people, the Jews have lost their way,'' the manual states. ``As a missionary, you have been called by the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to help them find it again.''

In another section, the manual advises the missionary to get to know a Jewish family by inviting ``a Jewish friend and his or her family for dinner and family home evening, or for a game of golf, fishing or exchanging their `favorite Mormon recipe for their favorite Jewish recipe.' ''

A church official in Utah confirms the manual was published by the church, but he says the church no longer uses it. The manual was not used in Israel, he says.

Galbraith plays down the manual's significance.

``You have to understand the purpose of that manual in light of the fact that we have a lay ministry,'' he says. The church sends some 13,000 young missionaries to about 100 countries each year, he says, ``who have no theological training whatsoever.''

The missionaries ``inevitably knock on Jewish doors,'' Galbraith says. ``The purpose of this manual was to give them some small understanding of how to act should a Jewish individual open the door. It's very low key.''

Galbraith says the Mormons have not targeted Jews for conversion.

Galbraith says that there are Mormon congregations in several countries -- including East Germany, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt -- that prohibit proselytizing. In each case, he says, the Mormons have not acted as missionaries.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.