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Thursday, 24 January 2008

MKs vow to monitor new Religious Services Ministry

MKs vow to monitor new Religious Services Ministry
By SHEERA CLAIRE FRENKEL

The new Religious Services Ministry has not yet begun operation, but MKs
from both the opposition and coalition swore Monday to keep a close eye
on its powers.
Members of the Knesset Internal Affairs and Environment Committee said
they would act as an oversight body to the ministry, to ensure that it
avoided some of the pitfalls faced by the religious councils in the past.
"This is a very sensitive and delicate issue. This [new] ministry could
be used to alleviate some of the current problems in the religious
councils, or it could be used for other, ill effects" said Committee
Chairman Ophir Paz-Pines (Labor).
Meretz Chairman Yossi Beilin said that resurrecting it constituted a
"grave injustice."
"There is an entire book on why we dismantled the ministry... I should
know, I helped write it," said Beilin. "Now we are creating this monster
again. The claims that it will be different, and that it will be given
different powers and authority than in previous years, is naive. This
monster will evolve and change."
Rabbis and officials from the Progressive (Reform) Movement who took
part in the committee discussion seconded Beilin's words, adding that it
was their belief that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert intended to transfer a
number of additional powers to the new ministry in the coming months.
"We could easily see a situation where each time the prime minister
needs to strengthen Shas's support for the coalition, he hands another
power over to the ministry," said one Reform rabbi.
Shas MK Yitzhak Cohen will head the new ministry, which has been granted
power over religious councils and the development of religious facilities.
Other duties that the ministry held in 2003 will remain in the hands of
other institutions: the Prime Minister's Office will retain
responsibility for the Chief Rabbinate and the Conversions Court; the
Justice Ministry will preside over the rabbinical courts and non-Jewish
religious courts; and the Education Ministry will continue to be
responsible for institutions of religious learning.
Representatives of the Prime Minister's Office told the MKs that the
ministry's powers were not likely to be expanded in the near future.
"The establishment of this ministry has been a long process. We have
been working on it for more than a year and a half," Cohen said. "All
the accusations that have been leveled - that the ministry was created
as a bribe - are totally unfounded."
Cohen added that he would use his authority as minister to eliminate the
red tape involved in many of the religious processes, regardless of the
religious background of those involved.

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