09/20/2005, 00.00
INDIA
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Indian converts to Judaism: lost tribes of Israel or economic migrants?

Churachandpur (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Around 700 Bnei Menashe Hebrew Indians, held to be descendants of one of the lost tribes of Israel, have officially converted to Orthodox Judaism, thus acquiring the right to "return" to live in Israel.

A beit din (commission of rabbis) travelled to India last week specifically to convert the Bnei Menashe. In April, the Sephardite head rabbi. Shlomo Amar, announced that he had identified the Bnei Menashe or descendents of Manasse – one of the sons of the patriarch Joseph – as one of the 10 lost tribes of Israel.

There are currently 9,000 people impatiently waiting to be able to convert and consequently to have the opportunity to move from the impoverished states of Mizoran and Manipur (north-east India) to Israel.

Last week, around 1,000 Bnei Menashe in Mizoram asked to convert but more than 800 were refused. In Manipur, 2,000 requested conversion, but only 500 actually converted.

Lyon Fanai, a Bnei Menashe leader, said: "For now, a small part of the population has converted. But the Beit din will return to carry on with conversions. Ultimately, even we will have the right of aliyah (return to Israel) and to resettle in the native land we lost a long time ago."

David Haokip is a young Bnei Menashe leader aged 23. He embraced Judaism five years ago and he goes to the synagogue to pray three times a day. "When we learnt that we had been recognized, it was the best day of my life," he said. "Now I hope the Beit will choose me to be converted." Today he will meet the Beit din in Churachandpur.

However, L. Thanggur, a pastor in Churachandpur, said: "They are simply economic migrants." He highlighted the fact that conversion to Orthodox Judaism meant a passport for Israel. "If they had better employment or opportunities here, they would never have imagined going to Israel or wanted this conversion."

According to Jewish tradition, in 722 BC, the Assyrians invaded Israel and the 10 tribes were reduced to slavery. The tribes fled Assyria and sought refuge in Afghanistan, Tibet and China. Around the year 100, a group left China and headed south, to the area between northeast India and Myanmar. "Shavei Israel", an association based in Jerusalem, has been working for years to locate the lost tribes and to bring them back to Israel. Research undertaken by the association revealed that the Chin of Myanmar, the Mizo of Mizoram and the Kuki of Manipur are all descendents of Manasse. According to the organization, there are at least two million descendents of Manasse in the mountainous regions of Myanmar and northeast India.

Going by studies and research, including DNA testing, the Israeli authorities have come to the conclusion that the Hebrew community in northeast India is indeed one of the lost tribes of Israel.

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