Secular revolution sparks ire of Orthodox

JERUSALEM — Israel's fervently religious political parties are vowing to wage a fierce battle against religious reforms agreed upon by coalition partners in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's new government.

The measures, dubbed a "secular revolution" in the media, include the dismantling within a year of the Religious Affairs Ministry and the councils that handle many local religious issues in Israel. The agreements also call for the institution of civil marriage for Israeli couples who are unable to marry according to Jewish religious law.

While the latter falls short of the initial call by the secular-rights Shinui Party to make civil marriage available to all Israelis, the step was enough for fervently religious parties to vow to block the measures with every means at their disposal.

"We've seen revolutions that have succeeded and revolutions that haven't. I'm sure this is one of the revolutions that will not succeed," Knesset member Ya'acov Litzman, of the United Torah Judaism bloc, told Israel Radio.

Litzman promised that as members of the opposition, the Orthodox parties would do everything in their power "to make sure that the government falls."

The "revolution" was most evident at the changeover ceremony at the Interior Ministry this week, where Shinui's Avraham Poraz took the reins from Eli Yishai of the Orthodox Shas Party.

Poraz's first step was to grant temporary resident status for three years to Natalya Senikova, whose 22-year-old son was killed in a suicide bombing at a Tel Aviv nightclub in June 2001.

Since then, the ministry had been refusing Senikova's requests for a residency permit, charging that she had entered the country on false documents and should be deported.

Poraz also announced that he intended to review Yishai's decision, recently approved by the Cabinet, to immediately bring some 20,000 Ethiopians known as Falash Mura to Israel.

Poraz also announced that he would end the ministry's attempts to block the import of non-kosher meat, the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot reported.

In addition to Shinui, the National Religious Party came under harsh criticism from fervently religious parties for agreeing to the religious reforms in the coalition agreements.

Knesset member Shaul Yahalom of the National Religious Party defended the decisions. Regarding the dismantling of the Religious Affairs Ministry and the local religious councils, Yahalom said the agreements simply call for the establishment of a new system to deal with such issues.

Regarding civil marriage, he said the coalition guidelines were part of an attempt to find a solution so that Israelis who aren't able to have a Jewish marriage in Israel won't have to travel abroad to marry.

At the same time, the mooted reforms appeared to be putting strains on the newly formed coalition Monday, with Yitzhak Levy, a deputy minister in charge of the Religious Affairs Ministry, saying it might take more than a year to dismantle the ministry.

That immediately raised the ire of Shinui, with Justice Minister Yosef "Tommy" Lapid warning the National Religious Party that the coalition agreements were not "child's play'' but binding agreements that must be upheld, Israel Radio reported.

In the wake of Levy's remarks, Lapid met with the prime minister on Monday. Sharon assured Lapid that the coalition agreements would be fulfilled.