11/15/2005, 00.00
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Israel stops conversion of lost Indian tribe

by Nirmala Carvalho
Bnei Menashe were recognised as one of the ten lost tribes of Israel, but protests by New Delhi has stopped the process of conversion.

Churachandpur (AsiaNews) – Protests by the Indian government have stopped the conversion to Judaism of the members of the Bnei Menashe, an Indian tribe recognised as one of the ten lost tribes of Israel.

The 6,000-strong Bnei Menashe live in the north-eastern Indian states of Mizoram and Manipur. After their conversion they planned to move to the 'Promised Land'.

"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.

"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.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry earlier this week announced it was going stop the conversions of the Bnei Menashe tribe.

"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 said.

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

Shlomo Amar, Sephardic 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'—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 group of 218 Mizo tribal people to Judaism after they took a holy dip at a 'mikvah', or a ritual bath.

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

Some 800 people from Mizoram and Manipur have already 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.

Mizoram is a predominantly Christian state, whilst 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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